The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-December 2021
Elizabeth Baines

July 2021
Old Filth
Jane Gardam

Ann suggested this novel, the story of the life of an international lawyer, Sir Edward Feathers, popularly known as Old Filth. It has received wide praise as a portrayal of the psychologically damaging effects of Empire, and a portrayal of the Empire's demise.

We first see Edward Feathers after his retirement, through the eyes of a group in the dining room of the Inner Temple, discussing him after he's left the room:

Senior Judge: It seemed to be a famous face ...
The Common Sergeant: It was Old Filth. Great advocate, Judge... Said to have invented FILTH - Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap...
The Queen's Remembrancer: ...had a soft life. Far Eastern Bar. And made a packet... benevolent old bugger ...
CS: Never put a foot wrong... Very popular... Child of the Raj, public school, Oxford, the Bar...

After providing this view of him from outside, the novel quickly moves closer in, and we see him in his retirement cottage in Dorset after the death of his wife Betty, oddly troubled by the arrival in the next cottage of a once rival Hong Kong judge, Veneering. From this point the book then goes on to reveal, in a non-linear way that follows the workings of memory, the troubles and stresses behind Feathers' outwardly successful and comfortable if reserved appearance. In particular we are shown the pain of his experience as a Child of the Raj, and its legacy. Initially raised by a poor Malaysian family after his mother's death in childbirth, he is ripped at the age of five from this loving environment by the decision of his austere and distant father - a man himself traumatised by war - to send him back to Britain. He will never hear from his father again, the letters he writes as he grows never eliciting a response. In Britain, alongside two girl cousins and another boy similarly despatched, he is fostered in a Welsh home where they experience hardship and cruelty. The precise nature of the trauma in that place, which ends with the death of their foster mother Ma Didds, is not made clear for a long time into the book, but we are quickly made aware that Edward - Filth in the present - still carries it as a lifetime wound. After the foster home, Edward is whisked away at the age of eight to the relative peace of a fairly pastoral prep school, where he becomes friends with a boy, Jack Ingoldby, whose Yorkshire factory-owning family invite him to keep Jack company in the school holidays at their rural house, a family to which he comes to feel he belongs. However, subsequent rejection by this family, cavalier treatment by the Lancashire aunts who were never in touch before he finished boarding school - although it will turn out that all along they were being paid to look after his welfare - and a searing and abortive attempt to return to the East during the war, all render him a young man very much alone and traumatised in the world, with a clamping down of his emotions the only way to cope.

We learn all of this in flashbacks as memories flood him in the wake of the death of his wife Betty, a comfortable, tweedy woman he met and married in Hong Kong, from where, due to the fading of British influence there, they retired to Dorset. Their marriage was clearly bland, based on domestic order and neatness, and somewhat passionless (separate beds, no children). It gradually becomes clear that their sexual passions were spent elsewhere, Filth's successfully extinguished after their marriage, and Betty's expended in a liaison with Filth's rival Veneering that neither she nor Filth ever acknowledged, Filth even to himself. The reader will come to know - though Filth never does - that in the moments before Betty's fatal heart attack, she had buried a gift from Veneering in the garden. As the novel progresses, it will become clear that the marriage operated for Filth as the balm for a tortured soul, and the effect of her death on him is dramatic. He begins to behave in uncharacteristic ways; all of a sudden he leaves his Dorset isolation, and takes to the road to visit the two female cousins, Babs and Claire, with whom he spent his foster years in Wales, and with whom he has clearly not been much in contact in the intervening years. He is shocked to find Babs living in reduced and slovenly circumstances and clearly unbalanced, presumably suffering lasting psychological damage from the childhood time in Wales. Contact between the cousins now reveals to the reader the truth of what actually happened to end their time in Wales, which Filth has clearly spent his lifetime suppressing, but for which he has nevertheless suffered a lifetime's guilt - misplaced, as it turns out when Claire provides him with new information. The narrative at this point will tell us of the way the experience moulded Filth's legal judgements. We learn too of the way that connections made in Edward's troubled youth reappeared at later times, sometimes unknown to him, to help him on in life and towards his career. Reading Betty's obituary in a hotel dining room, Filth is forced too to confront her true status as a powerful woman of the establishment, acknowledgement of which he has clearly suppressed in his need for a nurturing wife. Finally, back in Dorset, Filth can at last, for the first time in his housekeeper's years of service, remember her name: the protective reserve he once created as a barrier to the outside world is broken.

Ann began our discussion of this book by saying that although she had expected to really like it she hadn't known what to make of it in the end, and I agreed: we were in fact a bit puzzled by the universal praise. Most others - Jenny, Clare, Mark and Doug - expressed great surprise and said they had really liked it. They thought it the great portrait it was praised as being and went on to pick out aspects of the book that had really struck them: in particular the portrayal of the early years in Malaysia - which they thought was beautifully poetically written, perhaps the best written bit of the book; the ultimate cruelty of the apparently welcoming family in Yorkshire - 'This is a family matter', they say in response to Edward's offer to rush there when a tragedy occurs (they had just used him!); and the awful blase but cunning selfishness of the aunts - they had used him, too! It is indeed they who must have arranged the fostering by Ma Didds. These were all things which Ann and I agreed were striking.

I said that my problem with the book was the dialogue, which I didn't find realistic but rather stilted, and which consequently never really brought the characters to life for me, and therefore failed to make me interested in their fates and left me feeling that the book was a rather artificial construct. There seemed to me a lot of conveying information to the reader through the mouths of characters, which led to unrealistic speechifying. Sometimes characters would meet for the very first time and seemingly within seconds give an unrealistically uninterrupted speech about themselves, or at least make unrealistically personal announcements about themselves, their backgrounds etc. Mrs Ingoldby talks to the young Edward about her own experience as a Child of the Raj, and the situation in the Punjab at the time, conveying it in one huge lump which feels more like an essay directed to the reader than dialogue with Eddie. When Filth arrives on his visit to his female cousin Babs, she asks him, 'Do you want tea? I make it on my gas-ring...' This doesn't chime true for me. Why would she mention the gas-ring? Since Filth is present he can clearly see how she is living and that she is about to make tea in the living room on a gas-ring (she will draw 'a half-empty milk bottle' from 'an ancient gramophone'), so there is no need for her to convey that information to him; in any case she would be unlikely to do so in such an novelistically illustrative way. Others in our group said they hadn't noticed anything amiss with the dialogue, though they did all concede that the most convincing dialogue in the book was that between Filth and his wife Betty, with which I agreed.

Ann now put her finger on what she had found unsatisfying about the book. Having herself had the experience of being sent back from abroad to boarding school in the UK, she felt that a major thing missing from the book was the culture shock of arriving here - the traditional British food and customs and the climate, which would of course be the prime experience for a small child. Others in the group pointed out that the food at Ma Didds' is mentioned, and it's made very clear that the children were cold and uncomfortable there. I felt however that Ann was right, and pointed out that we may have been told these things about the time at Ma Didds' but the sensual experience of them for the child are never conveyed - which seems a particular lack after the sensuality of the Malaysian section.

For me there was another major gap: in a life history so generally comprehensive and which dramatises in detail Edward's other sexual episodes, there is nothing of the way he meets Betty, or of their initial relationship, beyond a late-on statement (on the belated resurgence of his lust, for a neighbour who calls round) that in the beginning Betty did arouse sexual excitement in him. Jenny said that this was probably because Betty was for him a balm against memories, but it didn't seem realistic to me that in the context he wouldn't remember, in a dramatised way, the beginnings of his relationship with her. This would also provide for the reader a stronger, more visceral sense of their relationship and of what she did ultimately mean to him.

I didn't mention it in the meeting, but I was also alienated by the only occasional but shocking snobbery. Claire is taken to Cambridge by her son Oliver while Filth is staying with her, and as they walk by the Cam 'Fat common people in tight clothes licked ice creams and ate oozing buns and shouted.' This is presumably the author's satirical portrayal of Claire, as the third-person narration here briefly and loosely adopts Clare's point of view, and the authorial intention may be to illustrate the different way that their childhood experience has affected her, leaving her untouched, indeed hardened, in her privilege. The effect for me however was to reduce the poignancy of the plight of all three children. Her later letter to Filth seems posturing and is pretentiously worded:

We three ... were absorbed in the process of handing over responsibility to the powers of darkness we had met as children, and who had met us. We were thoroughly engaged, us three. Still untamed. We were of the jungle ... You, Teddy, were horribly touched by [Ma Didds]. You became no good at love.

which made it hard to be as affected as I felt I was meant to be by its summing up of the effect of the Wales experience on the three cousins, and a significant plot revelation.

Others now began to mention things about the book that they felt didn't quite work. Some said that there were too many coincidences, particularly in the way characters from the past popped up out of the blue. This was a point with which I didn't agree, since the people the book deals with move within the confines of establishment circles. In spite of the fact that everyone had agreed that the section set in Malaysia was the most vivid and affecting, people wondered if the author's knowledge of Malaysia was secondhand. I'm not sure precisely what it was about this section that made them wonder this, and it certainly hadn't struck me - as far as I'm concerned, whether or not an author has actually experienced what they're writing about is irrelevant if it comes off the page as convincing, and to me this section did. However, the phrase 'curtains of light' occurs twice to describe Hong Kong within the brief references to the long time that Filth and Betty spent there, and while the phrase is vivid, its repetition in such a brief space does I think perhaps imply a lack of rich knowledge of the place - and perhaps this is what is behind the lack of any dramatised portrayal of how Betty and Filth got together in Hong Kong.

These comments of the others did seem to imply a sharing of my sense of the book as somewhat artificial, but in conclusion they said that nevertheless they still really liked it. Mark said to the agreement of others that it had been a really compulsive read - 'What more could you want?' - and was amazed that he had never heard of this great author before.

October 2021
There There
Tommy Orange

Doug suggested this powerful multi-viewpoint novel that follows several characters struggling with their confused and sometimes uncertain Native American identity, all about to converge on a powwow in Oakland, California. The title, There There is a quote taken from a statement by Gertrude Stein, who, returning to Oakland, her childhood home, found it so changed, so different from the 'there' of her memory, that 'there is no there there.' All of the characters, some of whom are connected in ways they don't even know about, share the weight of an obliterated past, which is propelling them towards the centripetal point, the powwow that symbolises the lost 'there' of Native American homelands and identity.

All are what a Prologue describes as 'urban Indians':

Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours [...] We were not urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act [...] Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn't just like that. Some of us came by choice, to start over. [...] Plenty of us are urban now. [...] They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees. [...] But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don't remember, which live in us, which we feel [...] feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us...

...Urban Indians were the generation born in the city [...] We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than any sacred mountain range ... the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers [...] the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread - which isn't traditional, like reservations aren't traditional

As the dynamic and witty prose flits from one character's consciousness to another, the painful past of each character is revealed - poverty, broken marriages, alcoholism - and each personal history is shown in turn to be the bruised consequence of white suppression and that collective lost memory. In one of the book's very many brilliant flashes, twenty-one-year-old Tony Loneman, who suffers the effects of foetal alcohol syndrome - 'There's too much space between each of the parts of my face' - thinks as he contemplates his appearance: 'it's the way history lands on a face'.

Doug wasn't able to attend the meeting, so John introduced the book instead. He said that beforehand he had expected the book to be more difficult than he found it, as he'd read that it included 'essays'. However, when it came to it he found that this consisted simply of the contextualising Prologue and a short 'Interlude' halfway through, both presenting the history of the 'conquest' of Native Americans from the Native American point of view - and so vividly, poetically and punchily written, blending so seamlessly into the narrative, having indeed a narrative shape and character of their own, that 'essay' is an inappropriate term.

Everyone agreed, and everyone thought the book brilliantly written. One problem everyone shared, however, was that we found it hard to remember who some of the characters were (there are twelve of them); we kept getting them mixed up, especially the young men. It was hard therefore to work out the part each was playing as they moved toward the climax. We thought that this was because unlike some reviewers we found the voices of the characters not to be distinct enough from each other and from that overall narrative voice (which we loved).

Someone commented that one brilliance of the book is the way that while undercutting stereotypes of Native Americans, it doesn't shy away from their reality, but shows how Native American lives, and even psyches, their expectations of themselves, have been forced into stereotypes by white oppression.

The book has a devastating ending. It is also leaves us up in the air as to the fates of most of the characters. We were all clear that this was aesthetically inevitable, symbolic of the cultural devastation and confusion that has been visited on Native Americans, but after being emotionally engaged with the characters and invested in their fates, we found it hard to take. We could however see that this - the effect on us as readers - was itself an aspect of the political project of the novel, and its stunning political dynamism.

November 2021
Maggie O'Farrell

Warning: plot spoil.

This prizewinning novel, published in 2020, centres on the life led in Stratford-upon-Avon by Shakespeare's wife, the woman known as Anne - or Agnes - Hathaway, while Shakespeare was living his life as a playwright in London, during which time their eleven-year-old son Hamnet died. The novel has received almost blanket rave reviews in the mainstream literary pages, claimed by some as O'Farrell's 'finest novel yet.'

It seemed to me an idea full of exciting thematic possibilities, and promised perhaps some interesting insights about a playwright whose work makes up such a huge part of our literary consciousness and literary tradition. In addition, I had read another novel by O'Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave, which I had found immersive (though that was perhaps partly because its subject matter links to that in my own novel Astral Travel, which I was writing at the time), so I was keen to read Hamnet and suggested it for the group. I am sorry to say that in the event I was surprised to be extremely disappointed in this book, and almost everyone present felt the same, as did Mark, who was unable to attend but sent a pretty dismissive note about the book. Ann said that she had almost given up on it, and John had done so. Only Jenny, who had read it twice, liked it, and said she liked it even more the second time around.

The book opens with eleven-year-old Hamnet coming downstairs to look for help because his twin sister upstairs has been taken ill, finding no one else at home and having to seek elsewhere. Straight away for me the novel revealed one of its main faults. The situation depicted here is clearly one of urgency - and some reviewers have indeed praised it for its urgency - but I found that the writing militated against any sense of urgency whatever. It is leisurely, ponderous even, with far too much time and space - pages, in fact - spent describing the surroundings, basically setting the Elizabethan scene, as the boy runs looking for help. We get a long contemplative description of the house, of the boy's grandfather's glove-making workshop, of the streets as he runs through them. We are told by the narrator that the boy in fact isn't noticing these things - and then we are treated to a page-long portrayal of the boy's personality: 'He has a tendency to slip the bounds of the real, tangible world around him' - but the point is we are being made to notice, indeed relish the scene around him - as a matter of historical curiosity - as well as the filled-in character study, and so the boy's present worries and the plight of his sister become defocussed and distanced.

This is a problem that continues for the whole of the book, which moves between the events around Hamnet's death and the earlier courtship and marriage of Anne/Agnes and Shakespeare. It felt to me - and to the others in the group - that the whole novel consisted mainly of scene-setting. Since the novel is set mainly within an absence - Shakespeare's absence from the family home - for much of the book not much happens (in spite the title, Hamnet is in fact out of focus for much of the book). Instead, much is given over to describing the household setups and processes and the herbal ministrations of Agnes who is depicted here as a kind of fay/wild creature of the woods cum earth mother/healer-witch with supernatural senses. Reviewers have said that the book wears its research lightly, but we felt that on the contrary the research smothers and weighs it down entirely. As for the prose itself, the rhythm is soporific, with frequent overblown lists of nouns or adjectives divided by commas, usually in sets of three, creating a downward fall at the ends of sentences: Agnes's bees cling 'to their comb, their prize, their work'; 'Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre.' The distancing of the characters and situation is further created by occasional authorial pullings back from the scenes, as, for instance, we see them interacting through the eyes of a group of unknowing children watching from afar, or from the viewpoint of a flying owl, or simply a detached authorial viewpoint. As John pointed out, the viewpoint is all over the place, moving from character to character and out towards the narrator without any apparent reason or scheme, with a resulting loss of forward narrative drive. As Ann in our group said, the whole thing would have pulled together better if it had all been done from Agnes's viewpoint.

So for us the book lacked narrative drive and psychological pulse, and it never seemed to me fully imagined. The characters - including Agnes - never came fully to life, which belies the blurbs's claims for it as 'the tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten' and 'the story of a glovemaker's son who flouts convention in pursuit off the woman he loves.'

These are outright misrepresentations, as is the claim that it's 'the story of a kestrel and its mistress'. (One viewpoint that is never included is that of the kestrel Agnes owns when Shakespeare first meets her; it quickly disappears from the book after she gives it up to move into the Shakespeare family home, and little use is made of it thematically.) Hamnet, as I say, is forgotten for much of the book, and it is a clear authorial choice to make the book very much not Shakesepeare's story, but Agnes's. He is absent from this story in more ways than one. He is never actually named - he is the 'tutor', 'the glovemaker's son', 'the playwright'. When he does appear - near the start, as tutor to Agnes's stepbrothers and as her suitor, and later when he visits the family home from London, he is still something of an absence, with a strangely wimpish personality for the writer of those lusty plays. There is an implication that in the early days his real nature was being suppressed - there are hidden depths that Agnes divines at their first meeting via her clairvoyant method of pressing the skin between first finger and thumb, a hidden 'landscape' - and, as far as I remember, there is even a statement that he reverts to his earlier personality when he returns, ie that he has a different personality in London from the one he has at home, but we have to take the author's word for it. We never see any real evidence of that psychological 'landscape' beyond our extratextual knowledge of those plays. The only hint of any spirit in him is his memory of an incident when, for once, he stood up to his bullying father, but his subsequent behaviour with his father belies the promise of this (and in fact comes over as inconsistency). We all thought it a great mistake to make Shakespeare such a nothingness, since it gave us no clue as to Agnes's attraction to him, or the emotional import for her of his absence from their home. Someone, I think Doug, said, to the agreement of others, that it was in any case very hard, due to the overall distancing, to get a grip on Agnes's psychology, and on her development from a wild child of the woods to the earth mother/witch of the subsequent chapters.

Something else bogging the narrative down is irrelevant detail, often holding up the action at potentially dynamic moments and dissipating the possibility of tension. For instance, as we are leading up to the climax of the book, Agnes finally goes to London to seek out her husband, and arrives at the house where he is lodging. She is greeted by a girl who is described in such vivid detail that I and others in the group thought she was going to be significant, but she turns out not to be significant in any way. Even Jenny wondered why, in a section describing the progress of a plague-carrying flea from Alexandria to Stratford, much is made of the fact that the sailor boy involved was from the Isle of Wight, with ultimately no apparent significance.

As for the 'climax', it seemed anticlimactic, and certainly artificial. Agnes (who can't read) travels to London because she has been told that the title of Shakespeare's current play is the name of their dead son. (An epigraph explains that 'Hamnet' and 'Hamlet' were interchangeable for Elizabethans.) This has deeply upset her. When it comes to Hamnet, her clairvoyance has failed her: used to 'seeing' people's futures, she did not foresee Hamnet's death, and, used to sensing the presence of the departed, she has been unable to sense any presence of the dead Hamnet. Now, with this news, she feels that Shakespeare has stolen him from her. None of this rang psychologically true for us (why wouldn't she see it as Shakespeare's tribute to Hamnet?) , and in any case we didn't find it convincing as a reason for her journey to London. Arriving at a performance of the play, she discovers Shakespeare playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, and in the role of Hamlet a boy whom Shakespeare has chosen for his likeness to Hamnet, and has schooled in Hamnet's demeanour and gestures. At this she understands: Shakespeare has brought his dead son back and taken his place as a ghost. At least I think that was it: it was hard to make head or tail of the psychology of it, and by this time I hardly cared. And it seemed an extremely artificial way of linking Shakespeare's son and the play.

There has been a long-standing discussion in our group about whether or not you come to novels for facts. I am strongly of the view that facts are not what you come to novels for, but, since Shakespeare is such a huge part of my own literary background, I did approach this novel with an interest in the historical setting. However, all of the above led me not to trust this portrayal, and I have to admit that if I come across an obviously wrong fact in a novel, then my whole trust in the novel crumbles. There were some glaring errors here. It's not unusual to come across errors in novels, missed by copyeditors (and I put my own hand up - I know that at least one of my novels has at least one blooper), but as Ann said, it's hard to forgive factual errors that are central to a novel, as happens here. The biggest error for me came with the treatment of the fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith: throughout they are treated by the author as identical twins (not possible if the twins are of different sex). Much is made of their identical nature, presumably in an attempt to establish the biographical basis of the themes of twinning and mirroring in Shakespeare's plays. Furthermore, there's an inconsistency in the treatment of their identicality: while we are told that they would sometimes dress up in each other's clothes in a way that fooled the whole family, it later turns out that Judith is a weakling, and obviously smaller than her brother. Ann said that the point at which she almost gave up on the novel was when the ship with the plague-carrying flea docked at (landlocked) Aleppo.

It is not known what Hamnet died of, but this novel proposes that he died of the bubonic plague brought by this flea. Ann, who is an expert in social history, pointed out that people would have kept well away from a house of pestilence, which does not happen here. She also felt that travel between Stratford and London would have been easier in the Elizabethan era than is portrayed and indeed made much of in Agnes's journey to London. Ann also noted something that had occurred to me: that, in spite of the stress in this novel on the household doings - Agnes's gardening and bee-keeping and medicine-making, the breadmaking and soap-making - there is no sense of the sheer back-breaking work that all this would have been, or its time-consuming nature. It would not in fact have been possible to do all of the things that Agnes seems to do, with apparent miraculous ease, in one day, or indeed as discreetly as she seems to in her early days living with Shakespeare's family. In spite of the supposed emotional hardship for Agnes of her husband's absence, which should have been unsettling, and her grief after her son's death, the whole thing came over as an unrealistic idyll. Ann said that what it reminded her of more than anything was the tales of Little Grey Rabbit (who lives in a house and bakes and grows carrots). By sheer coincidence, the day before our meeting I had been looking at a book of Beatrix Potter nursery rhymes, and an illustration of a rabbit tipping cowslips from her pinafore into an old-fashioned steen to make cowslip wine had immediately brought this book to mind for me. Ann suggested that the reason it has been so praised in spite of all its faults, is precisely that feelgood fairytale air, just right for a readership locked down in a pandemic and requiring comfort and escape from harsh realities. This seemed completely right to the rest of us, and Jenny said with a grin that that was probably why she enjoyed it.

December 2021
Nora Webster
Colm Toibin

Another universally praised book, suggested by Jenny, (by the author of Brooklyn, which we discussed here), but which I'm afraid didn't get universal acclaim from our group. Another novel set in the author's home town of Enniscorthy, it is the story of a widow's struggle in the late sixties-early seventies to carry on as a mother in the aftermath of the untimely death of her schoolteacher husband. Jenny, who had been attracted to the book by the scenario of a grieving widow, was its champion, identifying strongly with Nora's situation, and it seemed that those most favourable to the book in our group were bringing personal experience to its reading, although John, whose father died when he was fifteen, was one of those who were least favourable.

One complaint was that for much of this pretty lengthy novel nothing much actually seems to happen. Things do in fact happen: necessity forces Nora to sell the family holiday home and to be railroaded by her own relatives into returning to work in the office from which she was freed by her marriage. Here she must suffer the vengeful management of a woman whom the young Nora and her friend once despised and laughed at. She visits and is visited by relatives and friends who pressure her with their expectations. Eventually, taken under another woman's wing, and through the intercessions of a nun, she begins to find new ways of relating to the world: she helps out at a distant pub quiz night, she joins the local music society and is taught to sing, she decides to redecorate the house. She goes abroad on holiday with an aunt, and finds the courage to get herself a separate room when the aunt's snores keep her awake. She manages to make a stand when her younger son is unfairly moved to a lower class in school, and to get the decision reversed. Towards the end of the novel, Nora's university-student daughter becomes involved in Bloody Sunday, and finally Nora experiences being visited by her dead husband Maurice. While much of this might seem inconsequentially minor and domestic, there is potential for plot here, but Toibin is famed for eschewing plot, and also for his restrained prose, and his way of representing this series of events is indeed undramatic. On several occasions a situation promised a drama or crisis but ended without either. When Nora and her new friend run the quiz night, there is a strange rising confrontational hostility on the part of some male locals, but no confrontation ever happens. The potential for drama when Nora's daughter goes missing after Bloody Sunday is quickly dissipated when in no time at all - as far as the space and attention the novel gives to it goes - she is discovered to be fine, and the whole subject is summarily dropped from both the novel, and, it seems, from Nora's preoccupation. Textually, the episode is given not much more weight than her decision to redecorate the house. This lack of plotting or shaping resulted for us readers in a sense of a lack of forward motion, and almost all of us said that we were shocked to suddenly realise towards the end of the novel that three years had passed.

Toibin is also routinely praised for his empathic portraits of women, but a more major problem for some of us was that, as, with the character of Eilish in Brooklyn - in fact even more so - we found it very hard to get to grips with the character of Nora. The whole novel purports to be located in Nora's viewpoint, but is written in an objective third person that allows for withdrawal from direct - or even indirect - portrayal of Nora's emotions or even thoughts, and once again we found that too much is consequently left unsaid, unillustrated or unaddressed, or is even glossed over, so that it was difficult to assess Nora's precise emotions and motivations at too many given moments. For instance: Donal, the elder of the two children she still has at home (two boys) has a stammer that he developed during an extended stay at an aunt's while his mother attended to his dying father. Wondering what must have happened to occasion it, she visits the aunt only to be roundly told that the stammer was the effect of Nora never having visited or contacted the boys the whole time they were there. Nora's emotional reaction to this is neither spelled out nor illustrated with indications of her demeanour, nor implied symbolically (eg via her perceptions of her surroundings). (Did she feel it was unfair? Did she feel guilty?) Several reviewers, seeing the novel as a woman's struggle for autonomy in a repressive society, have chosen to interpret this as an example of the unfair pressures on Nora, but the fact is that it is very hard with a close reading to know her precise emotional reaction, and the possibility arises that she was simply unaffected, and that therefore her lack of attention to the boys at the time of their stay had indeed amounted to inexcusable neglect. For much of the novel it seemed to me that it was indeed intended as a sympathetic portrayal of a woman struggling heroically against societal pressure, but there were moments when I felt that this couldn't be the case. In particular, there is a moment, late in the novel, when it strikes Nora that she has not so far considered the happiness or unhappiness of the boys in the aftermath of their father's death. I have read reviews that have called this moment 'moving' and an example of the complexity of Toibin's character portrayal, and Doug, who didn't attend the meeting, wrote too that he found it moving, an illustration of the difficulty of dealing with enormous grief, Toibin's portrayal of which he found 'very real'. Jenny also defended this moment of Nora's revelation as realistic, saying that the grief of a widow can be so overwhelming that there is just no room emotionally for others, even children. However, because by then I was still feeling outside of Nora's whole emotional experience, I was simply alienated. I had a similar reaction to her response once her politically involved daughter Aine is discovered to be safe: having bothered to travel to Dublin with her elder daughter Fiona and Fiona's boyfriend to look for Aine, on hearing from another party that Aine is safe, Nora simply announces that she will now go back home and promptly does so without even seeing or speaking to Aine. There is no indication of her feelings or motivations in the moment she makes this decision, (and from this point on we hear no more of the matter), and so for me my own feelings about such a situation came to the fore (I wouldn't have just rushed back home so coolly and promptly!) and I was once again alienated from Nora. There are other hints from other characters that Nora is recognised in her family as a difficult, prickly or perhaps cold character, and my experience of all this in the reading (and that of others in the group) was of cognitive dissonance rather than character complexity. (It was interesting, we thought, that this novel more or less begins with an appearance by the mother of Eilish, the protagonist of Brooklyn, in which, seemingly out of the blue, she explains to Nora her motives in the episode at the end of that earlier novel, motives about which our group was unsure and divided, and which we couldn't solve by reference to the text of Brooklyn.)

It is well recognised that Toibin is an autobiographical writer and that this novel in particular relates to his own childhood experience. His own schoolteacher father died when he was twelve and like the boys in this novel he was sent elsewhere to be cared for while his father was dying. Like Donal he emerged with a stammer. Crucially, his mother was distant, and his writings are consequently full of cold and neglectful mothers. This novel is clearly intended to redress the balance and present the mother's point of view. Looking at it from a writer's perspective, it seems to me that the project, though admirable, is not entirely successful, not simply because we are kept at such a distance from Nora's emotions, but also because in those moments that I experience as dissonant the author's feelings of hurt come to the fore, disrupting the empathic intention.

The novel has been seen as a magnificent portrait of grief, and Doug wrote that 'the pain and dignity of loss, and the need to persevere, but not really succeeding, are really well conveyed in the early section of the book.' However, both Ann and I found it hard to share Nora's grief, since, as Ann pointed out, there was no real sense of what had been lost. Grief surely is characterised by a preoccupation with what has been lost, and since we are taking Nora's viewpoint we could expect some more vivid sense of Maurice as a person and Nora's relationship with him than is provided. We are told that Nora had always agreed with him politically, and it is implied that this was simply a result of her being subsumed by him. People in our group had come away with different impressions of him as a person, some feeling, because of this, that he was somewhat stiffly patriarchal, others noting that at one point Nora thinks to herself how amusing and charming he was, while Nora is constantly presented by the members of the community with eulogies about his worth and kindness as a teacher. Although we are constantly with Nora throughout the book, we are not party to her surely inevitable dramatised memories of Maurice to corroborate any of this. It is stated that a deep pain for her is having to move from the status 'we' to that of 'I', and Doug found this 'brilliantly portrayed', but Anne and I would have liked a more visceral sense of this than the brief moment when Nora wonders if she is going to have to say more now in political discussions. It seemed to us too that the potential implication that what Nora was really grieving was the status that marriage had given her made her rather shallow, but Jenny robustly defended this as a real matter of concern and unhappiness for many widows.

Mark and John were the strongest in their criticisms. John found the prose - which others have found careful and judicious - bland (rendering the whole situation bland) (although he did admit that there was something about the prose that to his surprise kept him reading). Both he and Mark criticised the lack of a story arc and the dogged linearity, with unconnected events appearing one after the other. They found especially tedious the many longeurs describing, for instance, the totting up exercise Nora has to undertake on the first day of her employment, or the nights she has to suffer the aunt's snoring on holiday. Ann commented that this last - the holiday - seemed somehow extraneous, and said that she had very much got the impression that Toibin had been compelled to write down everything that his own mother had experienced, at the expense of a story arc (always a potential danger in autobiographical writing).

Doug too, in spite of his praise, had some criticisms: he also found the office episodes unsatisfactory, lacking in tension and, although drawn out, seemingly there merely as a device to illustrate Nora's return to the world. On the whole he was less enamoured with the second half of the book - 'Lots of minor characters flitting in and out without much purpose. The moment on the beach with the nun just seemed corny' - and he found the later stages of Nora's recovery 'a bit saccharine and contrived.' Jenny had an opposite reaction: she liked the second half better, as that was when the book started to 'gallop'. Clare, arriving late, said she had enjoyed the book, but she did see what we meant about not being able to get to grips with Nora's character. Mark ended the evening by saying that if it hadn't been for two of us women expressing the same opinion he wouldn't have dared to say what he felt, which was that this novel doesn't really display a deep understanding of women.


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