Book club: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Based at the end of the 19th century, To the Bright Edge of the World is a tale of exploration of the newly-acquired Alaskan territory by the US government. Its a story of two halves; Allen, the expedition leader whose mission is to journey up the Wolverine river and his wife, Sophie, who is left behind at the Vancouver barracks.

The novel has been critically acclaimed, with Ivey’s use of diary entries supposedly adding depth with excellent authorial tones, and the descriptive hardships of the Alaskan wilderness providing the contrasting grit and moodiness that shape the novel. I will say from the outset, that I simply did not feel this way about this book.

Ivey’s descriptions of Alaska are wonderful; from the landscape to the native indians residing there and the mystical beliefs the explorers encountered and dealt with during their time there. But it is the diary entries from Sophie that, for me, let this book down. They are excessively long, contain letters from other minor characters that are full of technical details about photography and do little to progress the story. Sophie’s character is curious, but the trivialities of her socialite life in Vancouver only serve to detract from Allen’s adventures and hardships, not to bolster them. Whilst Sophie’s diary entries give the reader an insight into the life of a privileged newlywed in that era and the social attitudes of the time, Ivey could quite easily have cut Sophie out of the book entirely; for me, the intrigue lay solely with Allen in Alaska and I found myself quickly reading or even flipping through Sophie’s rather tedious writings.

Allen’s task is gripping from the very beginning. His mission seemingly impossible, not least due to the environment and weather conditions he finds himself in, but the constant threat of violence he has been warned to expect from the native indians. As a character, Allen is professional; he is a soldier sent to map the territory and that is what he intends to do. His emotions rarely go deeper than to describe his surroundings and his sense of unease or surprise. He is not a dramatic man, and that is perhaps why I find him more endearing and believable. I almost forgot I was reading a diary entry on many occasions, and felt as though I was there seeing it through his eyes and could form my own emotions from it.

What really brings this story to life is Ivey’s reference to the mystical; occurrences that Allen and his men cannot explain, but that fill them with a mix of trepidation, awe and fear. Men who are otters, women who bring fog in their wake and babies born of trees. The weather inducing hallucinations and crippling anxiety of encountering cannibals. And the raven; the harbinger of death in human form. Subtle references yet magical, giving the reader a sense of the otherwordly, untouched wildness of Alaska.

My love of adventure and exploration was satisfied with To the Bright Edge of the World, but it was not a fictional masterpiece. Too many pieces were missing to make it a completely rounded story in its own right; Sophie’s character and her position should have been stronger if it were to feature at all. All of those pages lost to her could have been utilised to bring more emotion and suspense to the goings on in Alaska.

Worth a read, if you can get past the first few chapters.

ivey

The 3 W’s

This is my first time taking part in WWW – a meme revived by Taking on a World of Words. So here goes, my 3 WWW’s!

What are you currently reading?

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey. Its written in a diary form which would usually put me off, but its so captivating! Ivey is quite an artist at describing the turmoil the expeditioners faced traversing Alaska and I’m enjoying every page so far. It’s a bit like a re-imagining of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic, but less like a present-day documentary and more a story of colonization and long distance love. Its beautifully raw.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It was a brilliant read, but not as good as A Thousand Splendid Suns in my opinion (though many people think the opposite). I would definitely recommend you read both if you haven’t already as they really had an impact on how I view the current conflict in Afghanistan and other parts of the world; a more humane view point that the news is unable to portray.

What do you think you’ll read next?

I’m not sure. I tend to read whatever takes my fancy at the time, but Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is on my list so I might give that a go. I have no idea what it is about (apart from, maybe, a girl called Elizabeth who goes missing?) so I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

What are you guys reading? Let me know if you have any recommendations!

Book club: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini, the author famous for The Kite Runner, delights once again with A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Beginning in Afghanistan in the 70’s, Hosseini takes us on a journey through time, seen from the eyes of two young girls, Mariam and Laila. Enlightening and horrifying, A Thousand Splendid Suns will keep you turning the pages well into the early hours.

Mariam’s story is concise; the reader has but a small window into her modest upbringing on the outskirts of Herat. Longing for acceptance and unwilling to admit to herself the harshness of such a patriarchal society, she unwittingly changes her life forever through one small hot-headed act of love. Forced to marry, an arrangement designed to suit only her burdened ‘family’, she is lead into a life of domestic servitude, bending the knee to her husband’s every whim. Her story is perhaps not unexpected, and the violence she bears is upsetting but all too realistic.

Laila is a different breed. Born to educated parents she believes that society should treat men and women equally. A fighter, but having to submit with the change of the political tide and war, she becomes a survivor.

Laila’s ending is far happier than Mariam’s, though in a way I cannot help but feel that Laila’s story is less believable. I was left feeling hope that the Afghanistani people will be able to rebuild their lives, yet I cannot help but feel that this was premature; the tale concludes a mere year or so after the terror attack of 9/11 and whilst the Afghani people may no longer be subject to civil war, etc, they were about to face war from the Americans and there is little mention of that in the closing pages.

However, aside from a perhaps more hopeful and unrealistic ending, A Thousand Splendid Sons does not disappoint. Harrowing but an altogether brilliant read for any type of reader. Hosseini is a true artist and has a way of stripping back a reader’s emotions to their rawest, purest form. It is honestly one of the best novels I have read in many years and, in my opinion, far surpasses the acclaim of The Kite Runner.

Book club: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

If you’ve never read a ghost story, or have been extremely sceptical about this genre then this is the novel for you. Its not a bump-in-the-night, jump-out-of-your-skin kind of ghost story, but rather a chill that slowly creeps over your skin with every page turn. A blend of Nordic folklore with hints of Greek mythology, Dark Matter is a powerful spine-tingling thriller that put me on the edge of my seat.

The plot

Set in the late 30’s, working-class Jack jumps at the chance of escaping a pre-war Britain and can’t believe his luck when he is invited to participate in an Arctic research expedition as a wireless operator. The ill-fated group set out for Gruhuken, a fictitious snow-bound island in the vicinity of Svalbard, Norway with a team of huskys, crates of equipment and hope.

Despite the disguised warnings and with the beginnings of trepidation in the air, the group start to realise that all is not as it seems in the Arctic. Daylight becomes a thing of the past and the endless nights starts to increase the groups’ uneasiness. Jack sees a figure by the hut, but quickly dismisses it until he is out taking readings later one afternoon. I felt the skin on the back of my neck prick when I realised that Jack suspects he is not alone; a scraping, a dragging echoing around the Arctic waste. A wet head rises from the water. Intent. Dread. Jack makes a break for it back to the hut. Did he actually see it? Is it real or a trick of the light, or, worse, a trick of his mind?

Before long, Jack is alone as the other characters leave for the mainland. Staying in a routine Jack tries to keep the horrors of his mind at bay. But it nags at him. The isolation of the bleak Arctic stillness permeating every pore. A thud. Is the bear pole moving? The creeping dread. And again the figure, malevolence radiating out from it. Ghosts can’t open doors, can they?

As Jack’s paranoia climbs to new heights, he realises the figure is in the room with him. Stumbling around he tries to get outside, to get away from it. He forgets his boots and before long realises his fate: he will die in the Arctic wilderness. Whether from the figure or the extreme conditions, Jack will not last long…

Jack

Jack is not a particularly likeable character. Paver’s style of writing in the first half of the book made me feel as though I was running through the story, from the meeting in London to arriving at Gruhuken the short sentences did not help to build up Jack’s personality. If anything, it emphasised his bitterness and short temperament, despite other characters commenting on his visibly calm facade at times.

But whilst I did not feel that Jack himself was endearing, his declining mental state was excellently portrayed by Paver. The worry and anxiety in the face of being alone on Gruhuken for the rest of the winter, Jack tries to keep in a routine but seemingly cannot hide his fear from those he communicates with. His fall into dispair, without being able to recognise it himself, and his hopelessness is resounding. His downward spiral stalled only by his new-found love of Isaak, one of the huskys whom he previously despised, really helped the reader understand the true sense of Jack’s loneliness and his need for some sort of interaction.

Gruhuken

Paver created Gruhuken from her memories of travelling around Spitsbergen and, I must say, that does give me some relief! Knowing that the figure dwells in a fictional place does help me to sleep at night to say the least.

Paver is brilliant at setting the scene; her description of the lessening daylight, the stillness and never-ending wastelands of the Arctic archipelago are so life like I felt as though I was suffering through the same ordeal myself. The words Paver uses really installed a wariness in me; his cabin little bigger than a coffin, all helping to create an intense atmosphere.

Like adverts and films, most novels have an abundance of dialogue. You notice if one ad is silent and moody. Dark Matter is no different. The novel is written in a journalistic style with the reader only having access to Jack’s thoughts; the plot centred around his observations and anxieties with little conversation helping to aid the story along. Its not a style I usually enjoy, but the descriptions and depictions of the Arctic wilderness and one man’s impending sense of doom make this book un-put-downable.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And if you have any recommendations of other ghost stories I could try, do let me know!

Book club: The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

Set in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, The Tea Planter’s Wife is an intriguing story of a young newlywed woman who leaves the comforts of her home in England to live with her new husband, the owner of a tea plantation.

Jefferies paints a charming picture of Ceylon; a revitalising mix of humidity and exotic wildlife, whilst capturing the political tumult facing the Tamils and the colonials at that time. The story is set in the 1920’s and 1930’s at the beginning of political strife and revolution; the novel depicts the rising anger with the British as well as the hopelessness they felt due to the reliance they had on their income and their reluctance to place their job in jeopardy.

The main character, Gwen, is quite a simple character, unquestioning of her surroundings for the most part and overly trusting of  her husband – whom she barely knows at the start of the novel. The relationship between husband and wife, never mind men and women as whole, was significantly different back then. Women were the homemakers, not permitted to meddle in their husband’s business affairs, so the reader has quite an insight into the somewhat mundane life of the ‘wife’.

Soon Gwen is thinking about providing her husband, Lawrence, with children as she is expected to do. To her delight she is soon pregnant with twins and that is when the plot of this novel really starts to take shape. Gwen gives birth to two children, but one is white-skinned and one is dark-skinned. The remainder of the novel emotionally depicts Gwen’s maternal struggle with giving one child away, the secret she keeps from her husband for over 7 years and the coming together of husband and wife as equals in the wake of a new world following the crash of ’29.

The other two main characters, Lawrence and his sister Verity, are quite opposing in nature. Lawrence is calm, a business man but with deep familial ties to Ceylon and cares for Gwen deeply, in his own way. He is all-observing, tall and strong-willed but his personality never really shines through. He is aloof and could be developed more as a character and particularly his work on the plantation and his care of the workers.

Verity is a complex character and having finished the novel I still don’t feel that I entirely understand her composition; selfish and sly, argumentative and vengeful, her reasons for acting the way she does are never fully explored and she is a constant source of mystery – and frustration!

My heroine of the story by far is Gwen’s servant and nanny. A native to Ceylon, she has worked for the family for decades and helps to settle Gwen in to life in the country. She has a life of servitude, but I found myself hoping that she would somehow escape those confines and speak out about all that she had witnessed over the years, even though I knew in reality no person would have put their job at risk in such a way. Whilst her knowledge of what had gone before Gwen (no spoilers – sorry!) would undoubtedly have changed the course of the story, she is nonetheless an endearing character and a constant throughout the book.

However, the novel is not without its flaws. There are a couple of unfinished endings and questionable events, especially in the final chapters. It seemed a little as though Jefferies was trying to wrap the book up as soon as possible after the main plot had concluded, but it didn’t quite all add up. In particular, Gwen dwells about Savi, a male character, throughout the novel and the reader is lead to believe he is a charming yet unsavoury character. But then, as if by magic, she just starts talking to him again after all those years. It seems a little unbelievable at times.

However, the style of this book is excellent and there is a sufficient amount of both substance and depth to each of the characters to bring them to life. I found myself becoming tearful at one point (I read on the train during my commute each day and had to hurriedly wipe away a stray tear!) and if a novel can make me, un-emotional and cold-hearted, shed a tear, then it must be worth a read.

At its heart, The Tea Planter’s Wife is a love story, both romantic and platonic but interwoven with themes of racism and colonialism.

The author

Jefferies was born in Malaysia and lived there until she was 9 years old before moving to England. She only began writing in her 60’s and travelled to Sri Lanka to help give some realism to her book. The places Jefferies refers to are a mix of real-life places and fictional ones, based on a several locations amalgamated together.

I sincerely hope you enjoy this novel as much as I did – let me know your thoughts should you decide to read it!

 

 

Book club: The Lake House by Kate Morton

A novel is an insight into an author’s world, or how they perceive it to be. No matter what the story, the intimacy of reading someone else’s words on a page gives you an understanding of them as a person. Most writers agree that they leave parts of themselves in each novel; your experiences are all you have to draw from after all, topped up with research.

But I’ve become stuck in a bit of a same-old author rut and didn’t know what to do. I felt I knew what was coming from the first chapter, and rarely was I wrong. I love a good story, but I wanted to shake it up a bit. And so I thought what better to way to encourage myself to read more widely than if I post about my reads and take inspiration from others – even if it is a book I would usually steer away from in the store.

So this is what lead me to The Lake House by Kate Morton.

The plot: a summary

The Lake House is a beautifully crafted book. It is the tale of a tragic incident that occurred in the early 30’s in Cornwall and which has haunted each of the family members involved for the following 70 years. It brings together a modern-day policewoman, Sadie, who in trying to escape from her own wrong-doing, visits her grandfather and stumbles across a majestic yet run-down house in the Cornish countryside. Her inquisitiveness leads her on a search for the truth in order to solve a crime that happened well before her own birth.

In the 30’s, the youngest member of the Edevane family was found missing. A toddler, last seen sleeping in his nursery whilst his parents hosted a party, was nowhere to be found. Presumed missing, taken or dead, each of Theo’s siblings held their own guilt and slice of knowledge as to what happened to him for the remainder of their lives.

The story primarily centres around Sadie and one of Theo’s siblings, Alice, who is now well into her 80s and a renowned writer herself. The novel jumps through time, from the 30’s to the present day with the reader gaining an understanding of the circumstances surrounding Theo’s disappearance from the perspectives of Alice, her mother and at one point her grandmother, with present-day Sadie tying it all together.

The switches between modern-day Sadie and the events of the 30’s helped me to gain an insight into not only the characters’ understanding of the circumstances surrounding the incident, but their own personal development. I found it far from confusing and more of a guide, helping me to come to my own conclusions with each plot twist, rather than being fed the story and feeling like an outsider, an observer.

Themes

The novel is largely the story of two crimes woven together within the Gothic mystery genre. Love is what holds this novel together and brings it to life; unbreakable family bonds showing the lengths a person will go to to protect their nearest and dearest.

Although the story centres around Sadie and Alice, it is Alice’s mother, Eleanor, who really stands out and makes this story real. In each of the recollections you see Eleanor in a different light and how she has changed as she gets older. As a young adult she feels stifled by her mother’s strict expectations of her and the need to please those around her. As she grows up, her love for her husband Anthony and the joy of motherhood is ever-present, but with it the understanding that she is now Mother, not just Eleanor. She had duties and responsibilities, but is she at risk of nearly becoming like the very thing she despised most: her own mother? Morton adeptly contrasts the adult Eleanor with the softer, girl-ish side to her and her desire to love and be loved. Eleanor is the rock of the family, the cord that binds them together and makes them a unit. Eleanor is, truly, the heroine of this novel.

Morton is able to portray Alice’s stubborn, selfish but other-worldliness as a teenager and show how she has matured into an adult, still carrying those traits but with a newfound understanding of life and the reason why people make certain decisions. She is set in her ways, focused and deliberate in each of her actions. Misunderstood as a teenager, perhaps, but her misunderstanding of the situation surrounding Theo’s disappearance is heartening; her friendship with the gardener confused with courtship and love, and her shame at being rejected resonating with her into later life.

Sadie is not a strong character, despite her central place in the novel. Her ‘wrong-doing’ is not such a life-changing event as the reader is initially lead to believe and she lacks in personality. Her sole purpose is to tell the story, rather than to seemingly be a part of it. I lacked any connection or empathy with Sadie, finding her rather bland. But perhaps that was the purpose. She was the narrator, and it could be quite easy for the reader to be side-tracked from the main story if Sadie also had her own life-story.

The most riveting aspect of the book by far was the author’s attention to detail, particularly when describing events and emotions from the 30’s. Alice’s observations about her siblings and mother; her button-down top and pearls and the lines around her eyes; the longing to be out by the lake, the dryness and grittiness of the summer heat bearing down on her really bring the characters to life and give them depth. Morton is able to give the reader a real flavour of what life was like for the middle classes back then, from fashion to behaviour and society’s staunch, conventional expectations.

But if you take a step back from The Lake House, cracks start to appear.

There are several incidents in this novel that are unnecessary and, frankly, unbelievable (alert: potential for spoilers!)

  • The death of Eleanor’s mentor and family-friend. The reader is lead to believe that this could be suicide, but it is largely unexplored until the reader comes to Alice’s grandmother’s only recollection. The mentor had lived with the family for several decades and it seems entirely unbelievable that he would be murdered. Morton clearly chose to kill him off to try and divert the reader, but the red-herring was so glaringly obvious from the get-go it would have been disappointing if the mentor had had anything to do with Theo’s disappearance in the end.
  • The ending. Whilst it was comforting for Theo to not only be found alive, but for the reader to know that Eleanor knew he was safe before her untimely death, it was just too twee for Theo to turn out to be Sadie’s grandfather. Of the hundreds and thousands of people who moved to and lived in London then, is it plausible that the two ‘investigators’, Sadie and Alice, would be linked biologically? I’d say not.
  • Anthony’s shell-shock was well-researched by Morton, but introduced too late into the book and then dropped far too suddenly. I have read several fictional accounts about the effect of shell-shock on those who fought in the First World War (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong being by far the most moving), and whilst Morton adequately explained the effects of it, it was a very shallow depiction and, I felt, tip-toed around the subject. Morton needed to explore it more in order for the reader to give it proper weight and consider whether it was viable for Anthony to have had involvement in Theo’s disappearance.

However, The Lake House is definitely one to read. It is a page-turner in its entirety and whilst I do have some criticisms of it, overall it is brilliantly executed and made me want to stay up late into the night to find out what was going to happen next. Many authors are able to depict a scene, an event, and add some emotion to it, but the human aspect of The Lake House is enthralling. Morton is excellent at portraying a character as a person; weaving in character traits, observations and personality into them so that they are all but real.

I had not come across Morton prior to The Lake House being recommended to me, but I will definitely be reading more of her works in the future.

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Whilst writing this I treated myself to a gorgeous cup of Black Rose tea in my new tea pot. I’ve had quite a stressful and tiring week so this pick-me-up was much needed.