Saturday 28 July 2012

A Gallico Giveaway!

The lovely people at Bloomsbury have got in touch with me: they have eights sets of Mrs. Harris MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow to give away, and decided that the wonderful readers of Stuck-in-a-Book were the right types to receive them!  Trâm-Anh knew that I loved Gallico's novels Coronation and Love of Seven Dolls, and though somehow I've only just started Mrs. Harris series (halfway through Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris and loving it), it was always more in the way of saving-something-brilliant than uncertain-I'll-enjoy.

So, if you live in the UK and fancy the chance to win those two books (pictured below, in situ in Bloomsbury's offices - aren't they striking and gorgeous?) just leave a comment with the place you'd most like to visit, but have yet to see.  (Mine, by the way, is vague - Scandinavia.)

I know that quite a few people have trouble commenting here - if you want to enter but can't comment, email me simondavidthomas[at] and I'll put you in the draw.

In about a week's time, I'll do a draw.  Good luck!  With eight sets of two to win, your chances are pretty good... do feel free to spread the word :)

Friday 27 July 2012

Dusty Answer - Rosamond Lehmann

Despite packing and moving and all sorts, I have managed (just in time) to finish Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, and thus I am participating in Florence's Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week!  I also realise I've been spelling it 'Rosamund' up until now.  Sorry, Ros.

I bought Dusty Answer (1927) eight years ago, and it's been on holiday with me a couple of times, and yet I hadn't read it (or any Rosamond Lehmann novels) until this week.  I had intended to read a different Lehmann novel, but then decided to start at the beginning, with the novel Lehmann had published when she was 26, the same age I am.  I'm glad I did.  Dusty Answer is brilliant, and fulfilled all the expectations I've been building up in my head over the past eight years.

The papier-mache dog (Pastey) was made by my friend Mel's boyfriend...
Mel insisted that he make an appearance.
The novel concerns Judith Earle, an only-child who is mostly solitary, but who becomes friendly with the children who visit next door - and who end up figuring hugely in her life.  They are Mariella, Roddy, Julian, Charlie, and Martin - mostly cousins, but Julian and Charlie are brothers - and have a busy, high-spirited life which Judith joins in nervously but so very whole-heartedly.  They are her life, for a summer or two - and ice-skating a while later - and have a huge significance in her otherwise lonely upbringing.   It takes a talented writer to write about childhood without the novel feeling like a children's book, and Lehmann achieves this wonderfully.  The cast is well-drawn - foolish but amiable Martin, above-it-all Julian, unusual Roddy, beautiful Charlie, and self-conscious Mariella.  Lehmann captures childhood, and the fleeting but all-absorbing interaction with other children, even when it lasts only a little while.  Although nothing exceptional happens in these chapters, the atmosphere is consumingly beautiful.  Part of me wishes the whole of Dusty Answer dealt with their childhood, from the subjective but astute gaze of Judith.  It would have been enough.

But, we learn in the first page or two, Charlie is killed.  The children grow up and don't see each other.  Judith must start to make a life for her own - which she does, as a student at Cambridge.  This was the section I liked least.  The character who looms largest in Judith's life at this point is Jennifer - they bond over insulting a chubby, ugly girl behind her back; they are essentially horrified by a lack of beauty.  This was where I lost a bit of sympathy for Judith.  But a novel - even one which looks through the eyes of one character - doesn't fail or succeed on the sympathetic qualities of its protagonist.  Lehmann still writes engagingly and Cambridge life, but I missed the cousins.  I wanted them back.  That group was what gave the novel vitality for me.  And, luckily... they came back!  I shan't spoil any more, but things get increasingly complex...

Dusty Answer spans Judith's life from childhood to her early twenties (I think) and Lehmann is convincing at the subtle ways she changes as she ages - and the same for all the children as they become adults (except poor Charlie, of course.)  Only Julian and Roddy got rather confused in my mind, and we might be able to lay the blame at the door of the hot weather this week.  As a central character, Judith is convincing in her thoughts and responses, irksome in her self-consciousness and occasional hysteria, and an odd (but believable) mix of concern for the lives of others and intense introspection.  Perhaps common traits of the only-child with distant parents.  One character sums up her approach to life rather well:
Have you ever been happy?  No.  Whenever you come near to being, you start thinking: "Now I am happy.  How interesting... Am I really happy?"
Yet, although she has a few off-putting qualities, these only serve to make her more interesting and rounded as a focal pair of eyes for the novel.  She seems to have been based on Lehmann herself.  None of the characters are saints or sinners; the good do not end happily and the bad unhappily - Lehmann's novel reflects the highs and lows, obsessions and irritations of life itself - albeit rather heightened at times.

But the reason I loved Dusty Answer was Lehmann's writing, especially in the first section.  It's another of those novels which starts with a little bit of prolepsis (starting with some information, then skipping back into the past) but it worked well here, because we are going back to Judith's childhood.  The effect lends an air of added nostalgia to the early chapters.  It actually reminded me of a couplet written by Miss Hargreaves (!) - her poetry is usually nonsensical, but there was a definite sense at the beginning of Dusty Answer of 'Halcyon, halcyon, halcyon days / Wrapped in high summer's indigenous haze.'    And Lehmann writes so, so beautifully.  As with Sybille Bedford, it's difficult to pinpoint sections which are especially brilliant, because all of it flows exquisitely.  Karen (whose review is here) wrote on the LibraryThing discussion of Rosamond Lehmann: 'What beautiful, dreamy, atmospheric prose she writes!'  And she's spot on.  As I say, picking out an excerpt is tricky - indeed, it somehow seems rather like purple prose in isolation, which it never does in context, but I thought I'd better not write a whole review without any quotations...
Into the deep blue translucent shell of night.  The air parted lightly as the car plunged through it, washing away in waves that smelt of roses and syringa and all green leaves.  The moon struggled with clouds.  She wore a faint and gentle face.

"I shouldn't be surprised if there was rain before daybreak," said Martin; and, reaching at length the wan straight high road, accelerated with a sigh of satisfaction.

"Faster, Martin, faster."

Faster and faster he went.  She settled herself close against him, and through half-shut eyes saw the hawthorn and wild-rose hedges stream backward on either hand.  The night air was a drug from whose sweet insinuating caress she prayed never to wake.  Soon, through one leafy roadway after another, the headlights pierced a tunnel of green gloom.  The lanes were full of white scuts and little paws, paralysed; and then, as Martin painstakingly slowed down, dipping and twinkling into the banks.  Moths flickered bright-winged an instant in the lamplight before being dashed to their fried and ashy death.  Once or twice came human beings, objects of mean and foolish design, incongruous in the night's cast grandeur; and here and there, under the trees, upon the stiles, in the grass, a couple of them, locked face to face, disquietingly still, gleamed and vanished.  She observed them with distaste: passion was all ugliness and vulgar imbecility.
But I think the only way to see whether or not you'd like Dusty Answer is to pick up a copy and start reading.  Since it was on my shelf for eight years, you'll have gathered that a synopsis alone doesn't sell it as a must-read.  But if, like me, you've somehow gone through your life without reading any of Rosamond Lehmann's output, then - hie thee to a library!

Thanks so much, Florence, for running Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week and for making me finally read this novel.  It's so, so good!

Thursday 26 July 2012

A Favourite of the Gods - Sybille Bedford

Let's take a moment, before I begin, to praise how beautiful this book is - the book-as-object, I mean.  Well, you can only see the picture - sadly, you can't feel it.  It is beautiful to read.  The cover flips closed with a beautiful soft clunk; the pages slip beautifully together.  It is a little soft to the touch.  It's delightful.  This is why I love books, not just reading.  This is why I won't get an e-reader.

But, thankfully, it didn't end there.  A Favourite of the Gods (1963) is also a really good novel, which Daunt Books kindly sent me a few weeks ago, along with the sequel A Compass Error, which I've yet to read.  You might already have spotted Rachel's enthusiastic review of the books - and I'm jumping on the same bandwagon, because I think Sybille Bedford might be something rather special.

A Favourite of the Gods concerns three generations of women - Anna, Constanza, and Flavia - over several decades, dealing with Italian and English society, living lives governed by different moral systems, yet somehow inextricably bound together, even when understanding each other least.

The novel opens with Constanza and her daughter Flavia on a train to Paris, intending to meet Constanza's fiancée.  Everything goes rather awry when the train stops and Constanza realises she has lost her ruby ring... they get off the train and stay locally for a while.  And then we leap back to the beginning of the story... as with Wise Children, this technique irked me a bit, but I'll let them get on with the show...

Since the plot is the least important part of the novel, I'm going to whizz through part of it... Backtrack to 1870s American Anna - who heads off to Rome and falls in love with an Italian Prince, as you do.  Marriage and a baby girl, Constanza, swiftly follow.  Some years later, Anna discovers something that makes her whisk Constanza away to England, forbidding to let her ever see her father again.  When Constanza becomes of age, she resolves to see him anyway, now she is no longer under her mother's well-meaning but possessive control - only, war is declared.

Right, that's as far as I'll go - but, obviously, somewhere along the way Constanza's daughter Flavia appears...

Thinking back over the novel, there are a few significant moments, but for the most part the events don't particularly matter.  Bedford writes, instead, about relationships between mother and daughter; how people come to understand the world around them, while relating their new-found understanding to their upbringing; how children grow to see their parents as people, and not simply parents; how events affecting the whole of Europe can equally affect tiny family units.  And, throughout all this, Bedford has an astonishingly subtlety.  Nothing is overstated; a lot is barely stated.  Bedford depends upon her fine character drawings, rather than exclamatory narrative interjections.  Anna is dignified and calm, but very proud; Constanza is more rebellious, but ultimately loyal.  Their mother/daughter has a thousand shades in it, and is wholly believable.  I loved how Bedford managed to convey this with tiny linguistic decisions.  For example...
Constanza said: "There hasn't been one word of marriage; and there won't be."

"But dearest girl, why?"

"One doesn't marry like that," said Constanza, "just like that.  For a bit of love."

Anna chose to laugh.  "You don't know yet, my dear, what one marries for."
I think the 'chose' is really clever there.  A lesser novelist would elaborate about Anna's shock and discouragement, and her decision to put a brave face on matters - but Bedford captures it all in a word.

It must be so difficult not simply to show how these characters are and interact, but how they change over the years.  We see Constanza growing from a baby to a mother, and Bedford writes her life without a false step or unbelievable move.  Often characters seem the same from cradle to grave, but Bedford is cleverer than that.  Here is Constanza as an adult, and a passage about change:
She had learnt to travel light.  In her youth she had looked at fate as the bolt from the clear sky, now she recognized it in the iron rule of time on all human affairs.  Today is not like yesterday; the second chance is not the first.  Whatever turning-points are taken or are missed, it is the length of the passage, the length of the road that counts.  She realized that she would never again entirely belong, but also that a large part of her belonged nowhere else.  Once more she basked, volatile and melancholy: the sun, the fruit, the colour of the stones were her inheritance as well as the sad pagan creed of carpe diem and stoicism for the rest.
In terms of her writing, Bedford belongs (to my mind) with the small and disparate group - as diverse as George Orwell and Elizabeth Taylor - whose style does not clamour and shout, but has a rich beauty in its consistent balance and measure.  It is difficult to point out a phrase which is exceptionally brilliant, or a piece of wit which ought to be repeated - but she is a subtle prose stylist par excellence all the same.

The best novels are the most difficult to write about, I find, especially where the novelist is not highly stylised - there are no grotesques or eccentrics in Bedford's writing, however welcome these features may be in the hands of other novelists - so I don't think any review could quite convey the feeling of reading A Favourite of the Gods any more than I can make you understand how it feels to hold the book.  But I hope I've encouraged you to seek out this book.  We've heard a lot this year about how Elizabeth Taylor is a Well Kept Secret and a dazzling writer.  Well, I think it's time that Sybille Bedford stepped out onto the stage.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Here we go again...

Moving house today...  I have a post automated to come out tomorrow, but no guarantees after that!  See you on the other side...

Tuesday 24 July 2012

A Card From Angela Carter - Susannah Clapp

When I was given A Card From Angela Carter at a Bloomsbury party a while ago, I was excited to read it - but, at the same time, I worried that it might be a bit barrel-scrapey.  The barrel that, as far as I know, has in fact scarcely been investigated.  The publication of some of Carter's postcards seems as though it would be the afterthought to a long series of edited diaries and letters - none of which have been published (or have they?)

But I needn't have worried.  The selection of postcards Angela Carter had sent to Susannah Clapp was really just an ingenious way for Clapp to organise her thoughts about a dear friend, and a refreshingly original take on the memoir genre.

I love biographies where the writer knew and loved the subject.  Indeed, I'm reading one at the moment that is a strong contender for my favourite book of the year.  So it is lovely to see Angela Carter as Susannah Clapp saw her - witty, a little rude, loyal, colourful, more political than I expected, and a lover of literature.  It is the last quality which I noted down most (perhaps unsurprisingly).  I was surprised, though, to learn that she didn't like Dickens - that she didn't find him funny.  I know some people do not, but having read Wise Children (which, thankfully, is the novel Clapp talks about most in A Card) I assumed Carter had been influenced by Dickens' own extravagant joie de vivre.  But there are plenty of writers Carter did admire:
Yet for her deepest admiration she went further back.  Chaucer - who was "so nice about women" and who, in the Wife of Bath, created a character she loved - was to her the "sanest, the sweetest and most decent of English poets".  She liked the idea that he wrote "before English became a language of imperialism".  She liked the notion that The Canterbury Tales, coming from an oral tradition, had to be direct and forceful enough to transmit when read aloud to a room full of people who were busy "sewing or shelling peas".  She liked the aspects of Chaucer's work that pre-dated the novel, and half-disapproved of the genre in which she made her name.  "I'm sufficient of a doctrinaire to believe that the novel is the product of a leisured class.  Actually."  That 'actually' dangling from the end of a sentence was habitual when she spoke.  Dainty but adamant, it was like the flick of a heel or the toss of her head.  It warded off objections but also slightly invited contradiction.  It both emphasised and slightly undermined what she had just said.  Actually.
And then, of course - of course - there is Shakespeare.  Wise Children is a love letter to Shakespeare - and Clapp's first-hand knowledge of Carter offers an interesting perspective:
She favoured the bland lines that moved the plot on: "a ship has come from France".  She was dismissive of the routine idea that had he been alive now he would have been writing for television: he would more likely have been a used-car salesman.
As for the cards themselves - they're reproduced in b/w in the book, and are mostly a little silly.  There's the car which looks like a chicken; the myth of mountains in love; the Charles/Diana divorce card... the Statue of Liberty in a lake; Betty Boop as a geisha, and (but of course) Shakespeare.  Clapp uses these cleverly to organise her thoughts about Carter, only occasionally seeming to read more into the choice of card than was probably intended.

It could have all been the scraping of a barrel, but it actually turned out to be very innovative, and rather moving.  For a writer as unusual as Angela Carter, only an unusual form of memoir would do, wouldn't it?

Monday 23 July 2012

Wise Children - Angela Carter

Twins. Theatre. Shakespeare. Eccentrics.  There was never really any chance that I wouldn't like Wise Children (1991) by Angela Carter, was there?

Everything kicks off with 75 year old twins Dora and Nora Chance (with Dora as our narrator) getting an invitation to their father's 100th birthday party.  Only he (Melchior) has always denied his parentage, instead claiming that his twin brother Peregrine is their father.  They're understandably a bit miffed by this, but nothing keeps them down for long.  They really are eternal optimists - and delightfully over the top.  They prepare for going out...
Our fingernails match our toenails match our lipstick match our rouge.  Revlon, Fire and Ice.  The habit of applying warpaint outlasts the battle; haven't had a man for yonks but still we slap it on.  Nobody could say the Chance girls were going gently into that good night.
That's a pretty good example of the tone of the novel, actually.  It's the heightened, slangy voice of Dora, a little coarse but endlessly cheery heroine, along with a good dose of literary references (but the sort that even someone with my rather fleeting familiarity with poetry will get.)  (Yes, I have studied English literature for eight years now - argh! - but I've always avoided poetry wherever possible.)

It took me about half the novel before I realised the significance of the title, but I'll save you some time - it is a wise child that knows his own father, as the proverb goes.  Oh, and if you've got the edition pictured (and probably others) then there's a Dramatis Personae at the back - I didn't find that until the end, but it would have been VERY useful, as the family is complicated beyond measure.  Heaps of twins, heaps of multiple marriages, and all manner of possible and probable illicit parentages.  All very Shakespearean - which, of course, is precisely the point.  I learnt, in Susannah Clapp's A Postcard From Angela Carter (which I'll be writing about soon - maybe tomorrow?) that she intended to get in references to every one of Shakespeare's plays, but missed out Titus Andronicus.  I wish I'd known that before I started - I'd have had my checklist!  Some are more obvious than others (they film A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance) but some are fun to try and spot (is the mysterious resurrection of a character presumed dead a reference to A Winter's Tale?)

A little while ago I mentioned my literary bête noire, of novels starting in 'present day' and then going back to the beginning.  I would probably have loved Wise Children more if Carter had chosen a different narrative structure, but that is what happens here.  We reverse back to Dora and Nora's youth, their early activities in theatre and film, and their various beaus.  Not to mention the increasingly complex family.  Melchior's various wives make for fun reading.  Then there is Nora's boyfriend whom Dora rather likes, so they swap perfumes (the only way they can be told apart, apparently) and Dora has her wicked way with him... and there is a fire.  Everything is gloriously over the top.  So much happens, to so many people, that it is a little dizzying in a short novel, and impossible to recount in detail.  But that is what I loved most about Wise Children - it is mad.  Dora Chance is wonderful - particularly in old age (which is why I wished we'd spent more time there, and less on the past) and the whole novel is wonderfully exuberant - mostly because of the inexhaustibly optimistic voice of Dora, and her turns of phrase, her cheekiness, and her ability to laugh at everything life throws at her.  And Carter is obviously having a whale of a time - it must be an author's dream to be able to use the most excessive and absurd images all the time - par example:
Flash! A passing paparazzo took a picture of an old lady who looked like St Pancras Station, monumental, grimy, full of Gothic detail
- and to concoct the most extraordinary plots and interrelations, while still able to point over her shoulder and say "Well, it's no more zany than Shakespeare."

It's such a fun book, and a good introduction to Angela Carter for me.  It was her last novel, and I have plenty more to explore now - maybe I'll even work my way backwards?  But my second dip into Carter territory was, as mentioned, the book Susannah Clapp wrote about her postcards - more on that coming up shortly!

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"Angela Carter’s last novel is an over-exuberant bear hug of a book; it’s the literary equivalent of being dragged into a conga line at a party, and it does this with such big-hearted, good-natured cheeriness that it is quite impossible to resist." - Victoria, Tales From The Reading Room

"I think that Angela Carter is like what I imagine marzipan to be like, or maybe this particular sort of chocolate mint cake my father has: delicious and rich but you maybe wouldn’t want a massive lot of it at once." - Jenny, Jenny's Books

"The novel succeeds on multiple levels, and on a uncomplicated plane it sincerely argues for the recognition of simple joy under the long and often theatrical masks of seriousness and complexity." - Leif, Leif and the Pages

Sunday 22 July 2012

Song for a Sunday

A lovely lady called Diana got in touch with me a while ago to recommend Christian artist Sara Groves as a Sunday Song singer.  Well, I know and love Groves' album The Other Side of Something, but Diana sent a few links to more recent songs, and I liked them.  I picked 'Childhood Summer' more or less at random, because it seemed appropriate for the last-ditch effort at summer we've been having this weekend.  Thanks, Diana!

Saturday 21 July 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

My weekend is looking pretty busy - a wedding later today, and then packing, packing, packing.  For I am moving house - to Headington, just east of Oxford.  If anyone would like to update their address books, email me and I'll let you know my new address...  My actual move date is next Wednesday, so I may go a bit quiet, depending on how internet goes in the new place, and whether or not I manage to prepare some blog posts in advance.

1.) The book - nearly two years ago, I was surprised by how much I liked Ned Beauman's Boxer, Beetle, and now his next novel has been published by Sceptre.  It's called The Teleportation Accident (great title; great cover) and you can read more about it here.

2.) The link - is hilarious.  Fancy eavesdropping on a sleep talking man?  His wife records his alter ego (he does know about this!) and then transcribes.  It's so funny!  Have a listen here.

3.) The blog post - it's that time already!  Rosamund Lehmann Reading Week starts on Monday.  When I first heard about it, I didn't know I'd be moving house... I'm still very, very keen to join in, but... well, I'll try really hard.  If you're not in the process of packing up all your belongings, you should definitely join in. Let Florence tell you more here.

Have a great weekend!

Friday 20 July 2012

His Monkey Wife - John Collier

Some titles are metaphors.  Some titles seem to suggest one thing, only for the book to be about something completely different - from The Silence of the Lambs to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.  And His Monkey Wife (1930) is also a bit false... but only because he isn't married to the monkey.  There is some question of it later.  But, as the novel kicks off, it's simply that a monkey is in love with him.  That's all.

Mr. Fatigay is an English schoolmaster in the Congo whose charms (mostly of a scholarly nature) win him the love and affection of Emily, a chimpanzee.  (I'm afraid I don't know the difference between monkey, ape, and chimp, or where these things might overlap - for the sake of argument, I'll refer to Emily as a chimp [which she definitely is] rather than the title's monkey [which she might or might not be.])  Emily is rather a dear.  She is incredibly intelligent, and with an eavesdropping sort of learning, manages to become an expert reader - although she cannot talk.  You might remember that last October I wrote about G.E. Trevelyan's Appius and Virginia, where a woman tries - with a limited sort of success - to educate an ape as her son.  Well, Mr. Fatigay is a fairly oblivious man, and has much greater success without even meaning to.
Is it so hard to understand how she came to a comprehension of the function of books, and even, perhaps, of the abstracter functions of language?  Our scientists may think so, who have chosen to measure the intelligence of the chimpanzee solely by its reactions to a banana.  They suspend the delicacy from the ceiling of a cage and assess the subject's mentality in terms of the number of boxes he or she will pile one upon another in order to secure it, failing to see that nothing is revealed except the value which that particular chimp chooses to set upon the fruit.  And, beyond a certain low limit, this surely is in inverse ratio to intelligence.  What boy of ten would not pile up a dozen boxes in an attempt to climb within reach of it?  How many would Einstein clamber upon?  And how many less would Shakespeare?  Emily, though a fruitarian by instinct, would have disdained an eagerness capable of more than two and a jump.
For Emily is quite concerned with etiquette, and wants to do things properly.  And thus it pains her to break into Mr. Fatigay's desk and read the letters from his fiancée in England - but she is not perfect, and not unafflicted by jealousy.  She is all ready to sacrifice her love at the altar of Mr. F's happiness, but when she has read the letters, she (and the reader) realise how callous his fiancée, Amy, really is.  She is stringing out the engagement, clearly not eager for Mr. Fatigay to return from Congo.

But they do go back to England.  Emily is thrilled to be accompanying Mr. Fatigay... but less thrilled when she realises why.  He is giving her to Amy as a present, to be Amy's maid!  Emily is not averse to a little hard work, but it is hardly dignifying to be the maid of your rival in love... especially one who shrinks from Mr. Fatigay's touch, and treats him appallingly.  What can Emily do?....

Celebrity librarian (!) Nancy Pearl apparently called Emily one of the best characters in modern fiction, which is quite the claim -  but I can see where she's coming from.  Emily is so charming.  Besides being besotted with Mr. Fatigay, she is wholly enamoured with books.  She manages to sneak out of Amy's apartment to visit the British Museum - and becomes quite a cult figure there.  Apparently the simple expedient of wearing clothes renders her more or less indistinguishable from a human (and there is, sad to say, a bit of 1930s racism in this section, when various gents try to guess her country of origin.  For the most part, they settle on Spain - but because of her spirit, rather than her appearance.)
"Well, I like her," said a simple fellow, "because she's a little woman.  A bouncing little woman.  I like them like that.  My first wife was not.  I was deliriously happy with my first wife.  With my second - not altogether so.  I like a bouncing little woman." 
"Well, gentlemen" said the senior member of the company, who ignored the last remark as being the probably carnal utterance of one whose work was merely the compiling of a cyclist's encyclopaedia.  "Well, gentlemen, we had better make a move if we're to catch a last glimpse of her, for like all that's best in life, she comes late and departs early, Heaven knows where."
I always find it impossible not to love a bibliophile in a novel - and Emily's love of the written word is a joy.  Indeed, she is a joy altogether.  As Osbert Sitwell writes somewhere, she is in many ways the least animalistic of all the characters.  She is certainly more sophisticated, responsible, moral, and caring than Amy - although things do take rather a twist later in the book... and the ending came as quite a surprise...

Collier has picked an eccentric theme for his novel, and sometimes that might have hindered rather than boosted my interest in his writing.  Sure, I wouldn't have read this novel if it weren't relevant for my thesis - but I can't help wondering how his talent for characterisation and writing would fare in a more quotidian novel.   The only other thing I've read by him (and this will serve as my post to link to from A Century of Books, as I don't think I'm going to blog about it fully) is Green Thoughts (1932), a short book (c.50pp.) where people metamorph into plants - also well-written, but absorbed by the strange.

What I liked most about his writing were the incidental similes he used, and they crop up a lot.  Here's one:
Fate, whose initial gifts to lovers are supplied as generously as those free meals an angler offers to the fish[...]
And there are plenty more to look out for!  He's also pretty witty, adept at turning a sentence in a semi-Wildean way:
The men were the sort who have given up art for marriage, but, as if nature was scheming to restore the balance, many of their women appeared likely to give up marriage for art.
Collier really is quite an impressive prose stylist, finding that middle ground between modernist experimental and simple storytelling.  There are loads of literary references throughout, from Virginia Woolf to George Moore: Collier clearly respects his audience's intelligence.  I don't really know what else he wrote, but I think this might be a case where the novelty of his topic overshadows the talent Collier simply has as a novelist.  I admired His Monkey Wife, and I'd be intrigued to read something else... does anybody know anything else about John Collier and his work?

Thursday 19 July 2012

Manguel on... the Destruction of Books

For a while I've been reading Alberto Manguel's wonderful The Library at Night, given to me by my brother last year.  It's the perfect book to have next to my laptop while I'm writing my thesis - when I need a quite break, rather than browsing Facebook I read a few delightful pages of Manguel.  And, like I did with Stop What You're Doing And Read This, I'm going to be posting quite a few funny, recognisable, thought-provoking, or simply good, excerpts from The Library At Night, along with some paintings I like, preferably of readers (following Harriet's great ongoing series - I may accidentally use pictures which have already featured over there!)  First off is 'Reading Room at Buxton Library' by Robert McLellan-Sim, from the 1930s..

"As repositories of history or sources for the future, as guides or manuals for difficult times, as symbols of authority past or present, the books in a library stand for more than their collective contents, and have, since the beginning of writing, been considered a threat.  It hardly matters why a library is destroyed: every banning, curtailment, shredding, plunder or loot gives rise (at least as a ghostly presence) to a louder, clearer, more durable library of the banned, looted, plundered, shredded or curtailed.  Those books may no longer be available for consultation, that may exist only in the vague memory of a reader or in the vaguer-still memory of tradition and legend, but they have acquired a kind of immortality."

--- Alberto Manguel, 'The Library at Night' (p.123)

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Five From the Archive (no.5)

I hope the Canadian bloggers among you don't mind my affectionate teasing in the sketch(!)  Although I've never been to Canada, I feel a certain affinity with that nation - we Brits (when we're not binge-drinking football fans) also radiate politeness (even when seething), and apologise when someone bumps into us.  Kate Fox's Watching the English is a brilliant read for this sort of thing, and will probably appear in a Five from the Archive at some point - but, for today...

Five... Books By Canadians.

1.) Too Much Happiness (2009) by Alice Munro

In short: A collection by one of the world's most acclaimed short story writers.  Munro examines many themes, but particularly death and intrusion.

From the review: "In playing with the short story genre, Munro invents a formless form appropriate to her superlative talent as an observer of human nature and human interaction."

2.) Literary Lapses (1910) by Stephen Leacock

In short: Very amusing sketches by an exceptionally gifted comic writer, not well known outside his native land.

From the review: "Stephen Leacock is a humorist par excellence. If I utter his name in the same breath as PG Wodehouse, it is not because their styles are all that similar (though both make fantastic use of stylistic exaggeration) but because Leacock is the only writer I would dare hold up to Wodehouse."

3.) Crow Lake (2002) by Mary Lawson

In short: A sister returns to visit her family, feeling guilty that she has studied for a PhD while her siblings have had to sacrifice their education... but things become more complex than that...

From the review: "Lawson writes with so many character nuances, and is concerned with subtle issues of empathy, sympathy, unity, hope, hopelessness, courage, foolishness, pride, misunderstanding - it's all there."

4.) The Penelopiad (2005) by Margaret Atwood

In short: A re-telling of The Odyssey from Penelope's perspective.

From the review: "The 'hook' of Atwood's narrative, though - a more original feminist viewpoint - is the death of Penelope's twelve maids. Odysseus apparently had them hanged upon his return from his voyage. I suspect this is a footnote in Homer's original, but Atwood plays it to its full potential, and it really is an ingenious angle: why were they killed, when they had aided Penelope?"

5.) Let's Kill Uncle (1963) by Rohan O'Grady

In short: A troubled orphan, Barnaby, is sent to a Canadian island and befriends a local girl, Christie.  Nobody would believe that Barnaby's kindly uncle is, in fact, a manipulative, evil man, intent on killing him.  Barnaby and Christie hatch a plan to kill the uncle first...

From the review: "When I read in the blurb that Donna Tartt had called Let's Kill Uncle a 'dark, whimsical, startling book', I was a little confused. Surely those words clash a bit when placed together? And I'm still not sure that there is much whimsy in the novel, unless you describe any scene without blood as whimsical - but it's certainly the lightest dark book I've ever read. Or possibly the darkest light book."

*  *  *

Over to you!  Which would you suggest?  (I chosen this 'five' theme because I've read so few Canadians - I imagine many of you would be able to suggest dozens.)

I should add that I loved The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, but apparently never blogged about it.  And, before you suggest it, I really did not like The Handmaid's Tale...

Tuesday 17 July 2012


Sylvia Townsend Warner (photo source)

Sylvia Townsend Warner on Virginia Woolf

Diaries 26th January 1942
‘At Boots Library the young woman put into my hands Virginia Woolf’s last book [Between The Acts].  And I received an extraordinary impression how light it was, how small, and frail.  As though it was the premature-born child, and motherless, and literally, the last light handful remaining of that tall and abundant woman.  The feeling has haunted me all day.’

Monday 16 July 2012

Coronation - Paul Gallico

God bless the Queen!  And God bless lovely Alice at Bloomsbury, who recently sent me a copy of Paul Gallico's Coronation (1962).  I wish I'd had this in my hands over the Jubilee weekend, because it would have made perfect reading.  It still made pretty darn brilliant reading this weekend.

Here's how the novel opens:
The wheels of the Coronation Special from Sheffield, due at St. Pancras Station at six o'clock in the morning of Coronation Day, 2nd June 1953, sang the steady, lulling dickety-clax, dickety-clax of the British Railways.  Approaching a crossing, the engine shrieked hysterically into the drizzly night as it pulled its heavy load through the countryside, London-bound.  In the third-class compartment occupied by the five members of the Clagg family and three other passengers, no one slept, though Granny kept nagging at the two children to try to do so because of the long exciting day ahead.
The Clagg family are absolutely adorable.  One can't help love them.  They are the every-family, so resolutely normal, and excited to be on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.  The Claggs are Will (salt-of-the-earth foreman at a mill, hard-working and kind, never quite as eloquent as he'd like) and Violet (slightly fraught wife, anxious to please her children and society equally), Violet's crotchety mother (known simply as Granny) and two children, Johnny and Gwenny (11 and 7 respectively.)  They're both rather lost in worlds of daydreams - for Johnny, it is the prospect of being a soldier (preferably one who dies to save the Queen - good man!) and for Gwenny it is princesses et al.  Not really challenging gender stereotypes, Mr. Gallico, but nobody could describe Coronation as a challenging book in any way.  No, it is instead a delightful whirlwind through the Claggs' day out in London for the Coronation, with occasional parallel glances towards the service itself.

The Claggs have managed, through Cousin Bert, to secure rather impressive tickets.  Initially 25 guineas each, they snapped them up for only £10 a piece (still rather a hefty sum in those days, of course - they have had a family vote to forfeit the annual seaside holiday in favour of the Coronation trip, despite Granny's moanings.)  The tickets include shelter, seating, and - to Violet's almost childlike excitement - champagne.  It isn't just the children who engage in daydreams; Violet is pondering how it will feel to be like a lady in the films, having champagne poured for her by a butler...

Over this first section of the novel, as the train speeds towards London, there is an undertone that, perhaps, things are all a little too good to be true...

I shan't spoil anything, but let's just say that things don't go entirely according to plan...

But this is not a dark tale like Gallico's (brilliant) Love of Seven Dolls, nor overly sickly-sweet, as I found Jennie.  Although it does have something of the structure of a fable, the utter believability of the Clagg family prevents it feeling like something Aesop would have penned as a moral warning.  Each member of the family has their vices and irritations, but you can't help desperately wanting good things to happen for them.  Creating one well-rounded, sympathetic, good-but-not-cloying character is impressive.  To give us five in one cohesive family, each yet different from one another, is sheer brilliance.

And then, of course, there is the Queen.  Although we don't see anything directly from her perspective, Gallico captures the love which many Britons (and others) felt towards the Queen - and which monarchists like me still feel: 'the journey to London was something very ancient in his blood, a drawing of himself as a loyal subject to the foot of the throne, a gesture, a fealty and a courtesy as well.'  It is too great a feat for me to put myself in the mind of a republican, but I'll go out on a limb and assume that you would still be able to love this novel for its delightfully accurate portrayal of family dynamics, not to mention Gallico's wit and sensitivity.

Oh, what a lovely little book it is!  It doesn't match Love of Seven Dolls for me, because I think that is a novel of very rare excellence, but, in a different mould, it is a sheer joy.  I raced through the novel in less than 24 hours, and I'm sure I'll read it again.  Hopefully for the Queen's 75th Jubilee!

To finish - it doesn't hurt that Bloomsbury have produced an exceptionally beautiful volume, with the incomparable David Mann designing the cover.  It's a special little book - and perfect to read in this Jubilee year.

(Long live the Queen)

Friday 13 July 2012

Chatsworth: the photos!

It's felt like quite a long week, and my energy levels are about up to posting a whole bunch of photos... so here are some snaps from my day at Chatsworth!  The weather wasn't great, but the company was, and the house and gardens are beautiful.  I didn't spend all that much time in the garden, but last time I went I spent more time in the garden than the house, so it evened out nicely (and this time Colin wasn't waiting in the car park!)  So... photo post ahoy!

This was the carriage they used at the
Coronation, I think -
included a great metal horse...

There is plenty of slightly unusual sculpture around -
this was probably my favourite bit.
Note the gilded balcony!

The order of service for the Coronation!

A whole Coronation room!  I was in Heaven.

Here we all are, standing looking regal on a staircase.
(l-r: me, June, Carol, Barbara - who has a blog)

Even on a gloomy day, not a bad view to have, eh?

For those who watched the BBC series, here's a close-up of the gilding...
I also saw the Head Tour Guide (whose story was in ep.1) walk past me.

A rather striking room - but, wait, what is that behind the door?

My dark, blurry photo doesn't really show it  -
but this is the most amazing piece of
trompe-l'oeil I have ever seen

My favourite part of a rather over-decorated house was this
beautiful wallpaper.  It might be a little overpowering 
if one had less capacious rooms, though...

The library!  It was actually very cosy.

Library Part 2.
Claire - how does this do on Library Lust?

Not, as June (I think) whispered, for a TV dinner...

The most wonderful baked cheesecake, which I ate in the cafe.

Into the garden - the spraying willow.

The gardens are a great mix of formal and unusual
- and I love steps anywhere.

From the highest point, looking across...

Just one of many separate sections, all with different characters

The house which supposedly made Elizabeth love Darcy(!)

Can't say I was wholly enamoured with the art in the grounds... 

No escape!  While waiting for my train at Chesterfield,
I saw that the Duke of Devonshire had donated
various pictures to the train station.

Thursday 12 July 2012

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf.  Whenever I'm not reading her, I have slight doubts in my mind - is she really as brilliant as I remember?  Does a little bit of me just love Woolf because I think I ought to love Woolf?  And then I re-read one of her books, and realise that she is as brilliant as I remember - I find it very hard to believe that there is a better writer in the twentieth century.  Suggestions on a postcard.

Even those who wrinkle their noses at her fiction (listen up, Colin) tend to admire her non-fiction.  For my thesis I had the pleasure of re-reading A Room of One's Own (1929), bringing the total to three reads I believe, and it has confirmed my adoration of the book.  Many of us are probably familiar with its central tenet - that, in order to write, a woman must have a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year - but it is surprisingly how slim a section of the work this mantra occupies.  You might (like me) also recall Woolf recounting her experiences at an Oxbridge college, forbidden from using the library and chastised for walking on the grass.  And Judith Shakespeare, the playwright's hypothetical sister with equal talent but no chance of fame.  But these are only small elements within a much wider exploration of women through history, through literature, and in contemporary society.  Like most of Woolf's writing, she meanders (in the best possible way) from topic to topic, from thought leading to thought, so that one is at the end, far from where one started, without ever seeing the joins.  The whole essay (originally delivered as two talks, and edited into its current form) winds beautifully through so many thoughtful and striking ideas that to explore them all would be simply to type out the whole essay.

And how tempting that is!  I want to quote it all, to demonstrate the beauty and astuteness (in more or less equal measures) that Woolf fits into A Room of One's Own.  Woolf is so intoxicatingly good a writer that it feels almost an affront to write about her.  So I shall mostly quote.

Having been turned away from one library, Woolf (or, rather, the essayist - she is probably being playful with truth and personalities at times) takes herself to another, trying to discover what has been written about women by the scholars, theorists, and novelists.  That dry, sardonic, slightly self-deprecating wit that Woolf uses so often in her essays comes to the fore when reading a psychological tome (while doodling the author's face):
It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor's statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women.  My heart had leapt.  My cheeks had burnt.  I had flushed with anger.  There was nothing specially remarkable, however foolish, in that.  One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man - I looked at the student next me - who breathes hard, wears a ready-made tie, and has not shaved this fortnight.  One has certain foolish vanities.  It is only human nature, I reflected, and began drawing cart-wheels and circles over the angry professor's face till he looked like a burning bush or a flaming comet - anyhow, an apparition without human semblance or significance.
Her conclusions, after journeying through much that has been written in literature, history, and psychology, says (of course) more about the ways in which women have been treated in these fields than it does about women themselves:
A very queer, composite being thus emerges.  Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.  She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.  She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger.  Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.
As I say, there is far too much in A Room of One's Own to be able to do it all justice.  As an essay, it deserves and requires slow, careful reading and re-reading.  Woolf's writing is too rich for skimming.  I can only imagine how frustrating (as well as wonderful) it must have been to hear the lectures - to hear such genius (yes, I will use the word) and not be able to jot it all down for later!  How fortunate are we, to have the book readily available.  But amongst the many glorious elements of Woolf's essay, I perhaps loved most her journeys through women's writing over time:
For if Pride and Prejudice matters, and Middlemarch and Vilette and Wuthering Heights matter, then it matters far more than I can prove in an hour's discourse that women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat shut up in her country house among her folios and her flatterers, took to writing.  Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue.  For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.  Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, and George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter - the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek.  All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is,most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.  It is she - shady and amorous as she was - who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.
So much of what A Room of One's Own addresses are battles that have been now won.  Woolf is not arguing about the numbers of female CEOs (why this is ever held up as a statistic, I can't imagine - how dreadful it must be to be a CEO!) she is arguing for women's education and entitlement to positions of intellectual credibility.  But one point did stand out to me, a battle which is still unwon:
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war.  This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.  A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop - everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
How many of us have heard this!  There are still (but how?) intelligent people who disregard, say, Jane Austen because she does not feature the Napoleonic Wars.  And many of our beloved middlebrow novelists fall victim to the same absurd views about what do and do not constitute viable literary topics.  This isn't as important as the battle for women to have university education (although sooner or later nobody, male or female, will be able to afford this, at the rate we're going) but it is a battle nonetheless.

However, I don't think one needs to be especially interested in feminist non-fiction to value A Room of One's Own.  I suppose, come to think of it, I am not especially interested in feminist non-fiction (however much I support the cause) because I've just realised that I haven't really read much else in this field.  What makes A Room of One's Own so sublime in my eyes is not Woolf's arguments and ideas, but her writing.  It flows so exquisitely; Woolf is so amusing and sharp, laughing at every turn, realising that aggression is far from the only way to make a point.  It is a book to read and re-read and re-read again - and a happy reminder that Woolf is not a writer for the elite or pretentious, but simply for those who admire ability, don't abhor thinking, and enjoy having a smile at the same time.  If you've not read it - oh, do, do, do!

Wednesday 11 July 2012

The Other Garden - Francis Wyndham

I had a lovely day at Chatsworth, even though all didn't go entirely to plan.  I'll fill you in on all that soon!  (WHAT a cliffhanger!)  For today, let's fill up one of those surprisingly-less-tricky-than-expected 1980s slots in A Century of Books.

I picked up The Other Garden (1987) by Francis Wyndham because I thought I'd heard of the author (and because it was short, cheap, and sounded interesting) but I must have been thinking of someone else, since this seems to have been Wyndham's only novel, although he also wrote (writes?) short stories.  It won the Whitbread First Novel Award, and various luminaries are printed on the cover saying that it 'Comes as close to perfection as you'll get in an imperfect world' (Hilary Bailey); 'Perfectly judged... wry, exact, poised' (Harold Pinter); 'A completely faultless piece of writing' (Susan Hill).  Well... it left me a little nonplussed.  Yes, this is going to be one of those rather uninspiring reviews where I am forced to say "It's fine, but that's about it."

I was, though, rather struck by the opening:
"How soon will lunch be ready?" my father would ask.  Assuming that hunger had made him impatient, my mother would answer with eager apology, "Oh, any minute now - it must be nearly one."  But she had misinterpreted him.  He had really wanted to know if he still had time for a further look at the other garden before sitting down to the meal.  In dismay, she would watch him put on an old grey trilby hat, choose a stick, pass purposefully through the front entrance, then walk serenely down the short drive and vanish into the open road.  Almost immediately opposite, a painted white wooden door in a red brick wall admitted him to this beloved extension of his property, subtly but certainly separate from the house and its bland surrounding lawns.  Once in the other garden he was safely out of earshot - but a few minutes later I would be sent in search of him with a summons to return, the serving of our good having been innocently hastened by his ambiguous question when what he had hoped for was delay.
This opening paragraph, and the title of the novel (novella?  It's super short) led me to think that The Other Garden might, indeed, be about this other garden.  Well, perhaps it was a metaphor for something (give me a moment) because it only turned up at the beginning and the end.  In between, it focuses mainly on the Demarest family, acquaintances of the narrator's family, albeit rather more well-to-do.  Kay and Sandy are the children, Sybil and Charlie are the Demarest parents.  The narrator (who may or may not be named) is focused chiefly on Kay, a young woman who is rather captivating and wilful.

And... I don't think I can remember much else.  There is a sweet dog at one point.  And Denis (a rather eccentric schoolfriend of the narrator) is shipped off to Switzerland for TB treatment.  He's odd.  What else?  Oh dear, oh dear.  I only read it recently, and all the details have faded.  It was that sort of book.  If I weren't recording all my books for A Century of Books, I'd have quietly slipped this back on the shelf, and never mentioned it...  But I did jot down one quotation which I liked.  Sybil generally isn't a very sympathetic character, but I think a lot of us would raise a glass to this:
"I do believe," Sybil continued, "that when the history books come to be written it will emerge that the great unsung heroine of these times we're living through will be none other than that much maligned creature, the British Housewife!  I'm thinking, in fact, of writing a letter to the Daily Telegraph to propose that some promising young sculptor - or perhaps a sculptress would be a better choice - should be officially commissioned to design a statue in her honour, and that the result should be prominently erected in some public place.  I don't know about you, but I for one am getting sick and tired of looking at monuments portraying middle-aged men on horseback!"
The details of The Other Garden escape me, but I do remember the effect it had upon me.  It's no secret that I love short books, and I really admire authors who can use 100-200 pages effectively.  But a novella demands its own structure.  The 'rules' for that aren't obvious - indeed, they don't exist, do they? - but I don't think a novella should be simply a truncated novel.  It felt like Wyndham's training at the short story had made him unable to structure a whole novel - I don't know, it just felt incomplete.  Not terminated too early, but as though it were the skeleton of a different, longer novel.  Somehow not satisfying. Hmm.  My post started fairly vaguely, and it'll end inconclusively.  It's probably a warning sign that, a week or two after I finished The Other Garden, I don't really remember anything about it.  But... don't forget that Hilary Bailey things it 'comes as close to perfection as you'll get in an imperfect world.'  So what do I know?

Tuesday 10 July 2012


I'm off to Chatsworth for the day - I'll report back later!

And Janey, if you're still interested in Babbit, email me at simondavidthomas[at] :)

Oh, whilst I'm giving brief notices - for those interested, I decided to change my Twitter handle from simonsiab (since people seemed confused over the 'siab' bit) to stuck_inabook - so I'm at  One day I'll understand Twitter...

What else have I been up to?  I watched an episode of As Time Goes By tonight which I hadn't seen for ages, and chuckled away (the last episode in series 4, since you ask - a very enjoyable mockery of film sets.)

Have a lovely Tuesday, everyone!

Monday 9 July 2012

Nervous Conditions - Tsitsi Dangarembga

A friend lent me Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (1988) an embarrassingly long time ago (we're talking years) and a combination of the appalling cover and the vague, uninviting title meant that I put it off for ages, and then forgot about it.  I finally remembered that I still had it a couple of weeks ago, flicked it open with some trepidation... and was almost immediately hooked.  What is it they say about judging books by their covers - do it or don't do it?  I forget.

The striking opening line is 'I was not sorry when my brother died.'  The 'I' in question is Tambudzai, who lives with her family in 1960s what-was-then Rhodesia.  They're in a poor rural community, the poorest members of a large family - they can only afford to send one child to school, and it is Tambudzai's brother Nhamo who gets this honour.  Tambudzai is desperate to attend school, even growing and selling her own maize to get the fees, but Nhamo tries to assert his masculine superiority at every turn, making Tambudzai miserable.  The reader doesn't mourn much when Nhamo dies - and nor, it seems, does Tambudzai.  His death takes place in 'the mission', where Tambudzai's rich uncle lives with his wife, son, and daughter Nyasha - and it is here where Tambudzai is herself later taken:
Thus began the period of my reincarnation.  I liked to think of my transfer to the mission as my reincarnation. With the egotistical faith of fourteen short years, during which my life had progressed very much according to plan, I expected this era to be significantly profound and broadening in terms of adding wisdom to my nature, clarity to my vision, glamour to my person.  In short, I expected my sojourn to fulfil all my fourteen-year-old fantasies, and on the whole I was not disappointed.  Freed from the constraints of the necessary and the squalid that defined and delimited our activity at home, I invested a lot of robust energy in approximating to my idea of a young woman of the world.  I was clean now, not only on special occasions but every day of the week.  
Nyasha is about the same age as Tambudzai, but had spent some time in England and adjusted to 1960s English culture, before having to re-adjust back to 1960s Rhodesian expectations.  One of the most interesting aspects of the Nervous Conditions is the contrast (and friendship) between these cousins.  Nyasha (although only fourteen) is considered loose and immoral for wearing short skirts and talking to boys; Tambudzai is keen to adhere to her uncle's instructions, but is developing her own conscience and personality at the same time.  There is another storyline relating to Nyasha's well-being which appears rather too suddenly at the end, and doesn't really work - indeed, the whole ending is surprisingly rushed - but before that, this contrast of characters is really fascinating.  Alongside, there is an equally well-drawn juxtaposition of Tambudzai's old life and her new life.  Although her parents want the best future for her, they are also clearly a little confused and jealous when she visits with a developing outlook on life.  It's done very subtly, for the most part, and you can tell that the novel is semi-autobiographical.

Indeed, this is probably one of the reasons I enjoyed Nervous Conditions so much.  If you've been reading SiaB for a while, you probably know that I don't like books set in countries which the author isn't from, or doesn't know well.  So if a British author wrote a novel set in Zimbabwe, but had never been nearer than Portugal, or had only been for a fortnight on a package holiday, then I wouldn't be interested.  Since Dangarembga's childhood was in fact in some respects like Nyasha's (it seems), I'm very willing to read her views of her country and people.  Here's a good example of why:
We waved and shouted and danced.  Then came Babamukuru, his car large and impressive, all sparkling metal and polished dark green.  It was too much for me.  I could have clambered on to the bonnet but, with Shupi in my arms, had to be content with a song: "Mauya, mauya.  Mauya, mauya.  Mauya, Babamukuru!"  Netsai picked up the melody.  Our vocal cords vibrating through wide arcs, we made an unbelievable racket.  Singing and dancing we ushered Babamukuru on to the homestead, hardly noticing Babamunini Thomas, who brought up the rear, not noticing Mainini Patience, who was with him, at all.
Had this been written by an author who had never lived in Africa, it could never have been as natural.  The greeting - so normal and expected of Tambudzai - would have become some sort of spectacle, where the dancing and singing would have been relayed as a piece of research.  I much prefer the sort of novel Nervous Conditions is, where the reader - wherever they live - is immersed in the non-artificial perspective of a local.

Primarily, of course, I valued Nervous Conditions for Dangarembga's writing.  It is lilting and beautiful, but not overly stylised.  It flows naturally, and gives Tambudzai's voice perfectly.  My only reservation with the novel, aside from the aforementioned rushed ending, was that it occasionally lost the subtlety which mostly made it special.  I'm all for a feminist message, but sometimes Dangarembga didn't trust to the show-don't-tell method (and she should have trusted it, because she excels at it for the most part.  Excerpts like this just felt as though they'd been included for cutting and pasting into high school essays:
[...]Babamukuru condemning Nyasha to whoredom, making her a victim of femaleness, just as I had felt victimised at home in the days when Nhamo went to school and I grew my maize.  The victimisation, I saw, was universal.  It didn't depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition.  It didn't depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on.  Men took it everywhere with them.
Not to mention how reductive that it.  Never mind.  Nervous Conditions is a novel, not a treatise, and for the most part Dangarembga achieves this wonderfully.  Not for nothing did it win the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989.  It's always a treat when I enjoy a book much more than I thought I would, and I can only apologise to my friend that it took me so long to get around to reading this one.