Sunday, 29 December 2013

Ten Days of Christmas - G.B. Stern

I don't usually do much in the way of seasonal reading, but I draw the line at reading anything with 'Christmas' in the title at any other time than Christmas itself.  So it was that I spent Christmas Eve and the next few days reading Ten Days of Christmas (1950) by G.B. Stern, very kindly given to me by Verity last December.

I forget exactly what the process was between me finding out about the book and being presented with it, but I'm pretty sure it started with spotting Jane's review in 2011 (my eager comment is there below it).  Verity couldn't have known, when she passed on her large print copy, that it would be exactly what I needed in my cold-ridden post-Christmas haze - not only because it was a rather lovely book, but because my eyes couldn't cope with any smaller font size.

The novel opens with a vast number of characters and (ominously) a family tree.  I decided - as I always do when confused by characters at the beginning of a novel - to ignore all of this and plough onwards, reasoning that they would fall into place sooner or later.  And they did.  It isn't important, for this review, to disentangle first marriages and second marriages, half-siblings, step-siblings, and cousins - but rest assured that they do all sort themselves out.

The central thrust of Ten Days of Christmas is the nativity play which the various children intend to put on for their family - and to raise money to replace a displeasing picture in the church.  I will cross oceans to read a novel about theatrics, and enjoyed all the to-ing and fro-ing this bunch of believable (if occasionally a little too wise) children go to in deciding who will take what part, which play to choose, and all that.

It was all shaping up to be an enjoyable and simple family-oriented story, but for one incident.  Rosalind - who, at 17, has forcibly transferred herself from being considered a child to being considered a grown-up - is given a pre-war 'duck ball' toy by an eager and proud cousin... and then given an identical one by someone else.  She believes she has handled the situation beautifully...

It is this simple incident, which could so easily happen, which spirals out of control to cause two painful arguments - one among the children, another among the parents.  Stern expertly shows how children and adults can feud in very similar ways - and how the variations often make the adults more childish than the children.

But, fear not, all is not dissent.  There is plenty of happiness sprinkled throughout.

Look, the influence of Jane's recommendation is making me blog with her short paragraphs!

One thing I could not shake from my head throughout was how very, very similar it all felt to the premise of an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel.  How very easily she could have taken these characters and these incidents and crafted one of her works of genius!  The many children and adults, interrelated in curious ways; the single incident which becomes so immensely important; the back-and-forth discussions which spiral round and round.  G.B. Stern was friends with Sheila Kaye-Smith (they wrote these two celebrations of Jane Austen in collaboration) and Sheila Kaye-Smith (as we know from the very brilliant bibliophile-memoir All The Books of My Life) was a devotee of Dame Ivy - could I be right in concluding that Stern was also a fan, and that Ten Days of Christmas was her attempt to follow in Ivy Compton-Burnett's hallowed footsteps?

Well, G.B. Stern doesn't have anything like Ivy Compton-Burnett's talent, and Ten Days of Christmas doesn't come close to the quality of her novels, but (to my mind) that is true of all but the tiniest handful of novelists.  Setting Ivy aside, Ten Days of Christmas is a very good, insightful, amusing, and (despite the arguments) extremely cosy novel.  Perhaps it is too late to recommend a Christmas novel now (although, of course, neither the twelve days nor the ten days are over) - but for future festive fireside reading, I do heartily recommend indulging in this treat of a book.  Thank you, Verity!

6 comments:

  1. Lovely review Simon! Stern is an author lurking at the periphery of my vision and maybe this book would be a gentle way to get introduced!

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    1. She's one of those I've known about forever, and before now I'd only read her books on Jane Austen (which I'm pretty sure you'd love) but I'm excited to read more of her novels - and have two more on my shelves.

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  2. I am so please you liked this, though I must take issue with the statement the ICB was a 'better' writer than GBS. I'd be more inclined to say 'different' and note that they were very different women. Though I'll concede that ICB was more focused, and suggest that this isn't GBS's best work. maybe you'll fit another of her books into your second century. And I must read 'All the Books of my Life' soon.

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    1. It is only my besottedness for ICB coming through, Jane! ;) I actually think they're surprisingly similar, but perhaps not as similar as I've made them seem here. I'm intrigued as to which are her best books... I have Oleander River and A Name To Conjure With.

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  3. I also enjoyed this (inspired by Jane's review), except for the ending. When I came across a copy of Stern's Matriarch Chronicles last year, I added it to the TBR stacks, but haven't gotten to it yet.

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    1. Oh, yes, I have that one too! Maybe I'll read that for my Century of Books.

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