A novel based around a North East coal-mining town in the early 1900’s. This was the age of capitalism and the rapid growth of industry, interrupted only by the first world war. For a while, fighting on the front for King and country seemed a better alternative, until the reality hit and few hero’s returned home in one piece. But for most working men in this northern town, this era meant the continuous daily grind of working below ground in pitiful conditions, often facing the possibility of death – or starvation if they came out on strike. Socialism was beginning to raise its head but more often than not it was considered a dangerous and dirty word. Joe Gowlan escapes the mine by running away to the big city, living on his wits and looking for every opportunity to better his life. Unscrupulous, full of swagger, and prepared to take risks, Joe climbs the gilded ladder mostly by exploitation and cunning. He avoids conscription, continuing to work his way into a number of lucrative business deals presented by the war.
David Fenwick, also born into the life of a miner along with his father and brothers breaks away from a life below ground by educating himself. He looks set to achieve a B.A. until his head is turned by pretty inveterate social-climber, Jenny. Determined to do right by everyone and full of integrity, David is the voice of the working man and after playing his part in the war eventually breaks into politics; only to go head-to-head with Joe Gowlan.
Arthur, sensitive son of the mine owner becomes estranged from his father after a terrible flooding disaster in the pit kills hundreds of men, including David’s father and brother. Like David, Arthur suspects his father failed to invest enough in planning and safety. He refuses to fight in the war as he only sees more death and destruction, and Arthur is thrown into prison. When he eventually takes control of the pit, Arthur spends too much money on improving working conditions and when the big industrial slump comes along and the workers riot, he’s forced to sell out to Joe Gowlan.
The strength of this novel lies in the richness of the story and the strong social messages throughout, skilfully expressed through real, multi-layered characters. The hopeless, fearful trudge of life in the mining community is well contrasted with those lives of the rich fat cats in charge; the steak and oyster feasts, the gleaming cars and the ignorance of working life. And yet despite the hardships of the mining towns there is a relentless pride and a strong sense of comradeship. Arthur serves as a wonderful bridge between the classes, and yet his lack of hard-nosed business acumen results in the complete collapse of the mine, and this subtlety adds a clever dimension to the black and white politics of the day.
The understandable greed of Joe Gowlan after such humble beginnings. The strength, pride, and stoic nature of David’s mother, Martha, faced with a strike in the dead of winter, no food, no money, and giving birth to a stillborn child. And those powerful scenes when the mine is flooded and husbands, brothers, and sons, are trapped below ground; scenes which will stay in my mind for a very long time. This is just great storytelling, a huge saga involving many intertwined threads, the triumphs and struggles of life through many different eyes, and the harsh reality that the good guy does not necessarily win.
Uncle Alex, a lonely and unloved translator, enjoys leading his passive, pretty niece, Gemma, astray. At first these possessive indulgences are quite innocent, but when she marries a rather cold, albeit successful doctor – a man Alex actively despises – his mission becomes all-consuming. In working on the story of Troilus and Criseyde, fantasy and reality begin to merge to the point where Alex encourages an affair between Gemma and an attractive out-of-work actor, David. But the increasingly complex web of deceit Alex manipulates for his own entertainment gradually begins to spiral out of control, with devastating results for Gemma.
A unique, somewhat disturbing novel, filled with egotistical liars and actors, voyeurism and sneaky manipulation. Cleverly plotted and impossible to put down. None of these characters are likeable but they are fully fleshed-out, exceptionally large warts and all.
Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor at a fair; a terrible drunken act and something which comes back to haunt him with a vengeance. Eighteen years later the sailor is lost at sea, presumed dead, and Susan seeks out her former husband to discover that Henchard has not only established himself as a wealthy corn merchant, but is also the Mayor of Casterbridge. Anxious to save his reputation and partly out of a sense of duty, Henchard marries Susan again, pretending Elizabeth Jane is his step-daughter – but Susan hides a dark secret, and Henchard has already promised a future to Lucetta Templeman. When a handsome, straight-speaking Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, arrives in town Henchard is quick to employ him and his clever business ideas, but then matters become compounded when both Lucetta and Elizabeth Jane are romantically inclined towards Farfrae, and Henchard is thrown into a state of flux. As their relationships – both business and pleasure – become hopelessly intertwined and fraught with wrong turns, Farfrae’s fortunes look set to rise and Henchard finds himself on the downward spiral as his past rushes to meet him.
The narrative is quite hard-going, partly down to a lot of old English words and the rural slang of the day. The dialogue is authentic, especially the regional variations, and it’s also a rich and vivid portrait of country life in 1840’s Dorset. There are a few convenient deaths and the overall atmosphere is one of melancholy and redemption, but the strength of this novel lies in the twisty plotting and how well it is structured. Characters are multi-dimensional and rise and fall by their own hand. Henchard, although he tries to do the right thing isn’t quite the moral upstanding man his image represents, and the author really does make him pay! It’s a great story, one with a strong social and moral conscience.
Cashelmara is loosely based on the lives of Edward I II and III; although this story mostly takes place in late nineteenth-century Ireland, through those troubled times when the country was besieged with famine and uprisings, and frequently at odds with the Protestant Englishmen who owned the estates. An epic, historical saga written from 6 different viewpoints, the story follows the fortunes of three generations beginning with Edward de Salis and his second marriage to his wife’s cousin, a young American, Marguerite. The eldest son from Edward’s first marriage naturally inherits everything on his death: the Irish estate, Cashelmara, plus the beautiful English county mansion where Patrick grew up, and his considerable wealth. Unfortunately Patrick does not inherit his father’s head for business, and although he follows in his footsteps when he marries his step-mother’s American cousin, Sarah, his drinking, reckless spending and gambling looks set to ruin everything. Forced to live humbly at Cashelmara, Patrick spends his time cultivating the garden and perfecting his wood-carving skills, and continues to form intense ‘friendships’ with men rather than pursue a more serious occupation fitting to a gentleman of his class. When the insidious Derry Stranahan becomes intimately involved not only with Patrick, but also with managing Cashelmara’s estate, the rot really sets in. Poor, beleaguered Sarah forms her own, dangerous allegiance with Hugh McGowan, both romantically and otherwise, and before too long the fate of Cashelmara is the subject of a scandalous power struggle giving rise to affairs, betrayal, revenge, and murder.
This is a heavily characterised novel and the structure is superb, allowing one to be fully immersed not only in the narrators head, but in another time and place as the plot is skilfully moved forwards without repeating what we already know, and without revealing all. There is a strong element of psychology allowed to influence character motivation, leaving no doubt that these events happened. Vivid historical detail, the suppression and sexual naivety of women, the super-rich and the super-poor and the iron fist of the church are all incorporated to great affect.
Florence, Elsie, and Jack, live in sheltered accommodation. When a new resident arrives Florence is convinced it’s someone she used to know, but how can it be when he died more than sixty years ago? As Florence lies waiting for someone to discover her after a fall, her mind takes her on a trip down memory lane. Perhaps she’ll discover who keeps moving her elephant and buying so much cake, and what really happened to Ronnie Butler.
Anyone with personal experience of dementia will perhaps be better placed to relate to this novel – especially the ending – because its strength lies in the observed detail and the superb characterisation not only of Florence but also of those working in sheltered housing or caring for the elderly. The secondary characters in this novel are as strong as the main protagonist, which goes against the grain but Handy Simon and Miss Ambrose not only lift the narrative, but help to set the mood. I love, love the dark humour mixed with poignant insights about life, death, and where we fit in the grand scheme of things, the sort of things we think about as we age and look back. The language, and the nuts and bolts of the writing are faultless and cleverly crafted. My personal enjoyment flagged a little here and there, especially through the mid-section and occasionally where the time-slips caught me out and also, because its incredibly difficult to write engagingly and consistently about such a tough subject. This is a very real book, maybe a little too real to be classed merely as fiction and escapism, but fair to say the essence of it crept under my skin.
Richard’s needy, bohemian ex-wife, Inge, makes life with his new wife and step-daughter as difficult as possible. Since leaving her and their two boys, Richard can’t help but respond to her loneliness, driven by guilt and a sense of duty. Inge has been hanging on for eight years, convinced that Richard will eventually return to the family home. Richard’s second wife, Helen, is more self-contained and independent, allowing him to please everybody except perhaps himself. His lifelong friend the handsome, manipulative, promiscuous author, Felix, is not averse in allowing his creativity to overlap real life, and Felix takes his pleasures very seriously. His devoted wife turns a blind eye to his selfish extravagance, so long as it’s not too close to home.
When Felix begins an affair with Helen’s young daughter, Sally – the most forbidden of fruit – a series of unfortunate events slowly unravels all their relationships, finally laying bare the undesirable truth of jealousy, lies, secrets, immorality, and betrayal. What sets this eighties novel apart from others that try to emulate this kind of sex-shock-taboo style, is the incredible depth of character and the highly credible backstories. The storyline might involve time-worn themes but nothing is overdone or overwritten, sex scenes are restrained and impart only what we need to know, making for a deliciously dark and smutty read heavily based on the psychology of relationships, and the prisons we can so easily make for ourselves.
Emotionally spoilt, self-indulgent Prue, falls pregnant at the age of 19 to the dark and dashing Gavin. Her father, respectable Peter Manson, cannot abide the idea of them being close; it’s as if another man has taken his rightful place. As he faces his own mid-life crisis, Peter tries to come to terms with the loss of possession over his daughter by beginning an affair with his young secretary. Gavin and Prue attempt to work through their own marriage anomalies as Prue perfects her role as the introspective, attention-seeking victim; eventually goading Gavin into punishing her. When she spills the beans about her father’s affair to her gentile, subservient mother, Cassie, Gavin sees red. But his out of control heavy-handedness with Prue has an unexpected effect on Cassie, and her own emotional skeleton falls from the closet with the slightest push, sending the sexual dynamic between them all spinning on its axis yet again.
Dark, raw, honest, and still maintaining a scandalous edge, especially when one considers this was written in 1969 and aired on TV in the seventies. I remember watching the series with my mother and we were both transfixed by this melting-pot of emotions played out by the middle-class Manson family. It’s not necessary to like any of these characters or to condone how they live, but rather to view it as an indulgent, hugely entertaining insight into their messy sex lives. But then, it’s so much more than that. How complex we humans are, how fragile our feelings and failures. What to show, what to keep buried. The complexities of ageing, domestic violence, incestuous thoughts, adultery, and sadism and masochism are all touched upon, but what makes this book so good is that none of this is described in any great detail or used gratuitously – it’s much more subtle. And all the more powerful, and recognisable for that.
Lord Chatterley, seriously wounded in the war, is confined to a wheelchair. He’s mostly concerned about his social standing and seeks to find solace in his writing. As he looks to find meaning and purpose to his life in increasingly superficial ways, he fails to notice the difficulties his disability and his emotional detachment forces upon his young, intelligent wife. This especially so when he suggests Connie takes a carefully chosen lover with a view to becoming pregnant – simply to provide him with a son and heir. Lady Chatterley comes to know the estate gamekeeper, and before too long Connie is faced with confronting the differences between the upper and lower classes, forced to make a choice between a future in poorer circumstances with Mellors, or a life of comfortable luxury with her distant, physically challenged husband.
A shocking book in its day, it was banned for being considered pornographic, and understandable too when one considers this was written at a time when sex and adultery in literature was taboo. So, D.H.Lawrence was a bit rude and racy with his pen although by today’s standards his sex scenes are positively tame – and perhaps, slightly surreal given the historical differences – although some of the language he uses is quite coarse and explicit. Outside of this element there are a lot of intellectual, albeit honest conversations about the differences between men and women, and the politics of the day. Sadly, I didn’t care for any of the characters and the storyline felt slow and lacking in substance; ultimately the book felt more about bringing attention to the tide of change shifting across the social strata of England, including the oppression of women – especially sexually – and I think its strength lies in highlighting several social messages, rather than a work of pure fiction. Questions are raised as to why it should be so wrong to cross social boundaries and above all, what price wealth against love.
A compelling story of a boy winning against all the odds through an educational system beyond his social level, but never beyond his abilities. And his hard-working, widowed mother, Maisie, is determined to give Harry the best of opportunities. But past encounters with an ex are never far away, and when Harry befriends Giles Barrington, his meddlesome, fraudulent father, Hugo, does his best to deny what happened between Harry’s mother and himself all those years ago.
A slow start, but then the story began to really draw me in and the big question about Harry’s parentage ebbed and flowed beneath the surface until the build to the denouement – where everything falls apart beneath an avalanche of revelations. I wasn’t quite convinced that both Hugo Barrington and Maisie Clifton would have allowed matters between Emma and Harry to get quite as far as they did, not without some sort of intervention. Hugo perhaps, because he was such a cowardly toad but Maisie had a good handle on moral responsibility and lived for her son, so I’m not sure she would have simply stood by. Not only are there some unresolved threads in this book, but the story ends on the most terrific cliffhanger of a plot twist, so if you prefer everything to be tied-up with a ribbon by the last page, you might feel cheated.
The writing itself is concise and to the point and without too much of a descriptive slant, but it’s a clever structure and the likeable characters combined with steadily building tension, kept me turning the pages. There are slightly overlapping timelines shared between the characters but I liked this structure as it allowed for a greater understanding, not only of the character viewpoints and motivations but in the way it brought to light more and more subtle information. This is a heart-warming story, an easy-read of a historical family-saga with a slightly soapy feel. The sort of fiction which doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and I really enjoyed it.