You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Fiction’ category.

This is an epic book, and not at all what I expected. When the blurb on the back tells you that it is about children growing up in the Edwardian era who will be ‘betrayed unintentionally by the adults who love them’ your mind, or mine at least, presumes that the book will have as a large part a focus on the First World War. And this is not so. The First World War does feature, but towards the end, and it an event played out on the world stage, and yes it is a betrayal. But in many ways it is just one more betrayal these young people have to face, and it is most definitely not the novel’s focus.

Instead it focuses on a set of bohemian, artistic families, who are determined to live by modern, humanistic values, and who see this as the most rational and productive way to raise the next generation. But it doesn’t always work that way. Discovered through the children’s glimpses, we see the distortions and misunderstandings that Humphry’s and Olive’s infidelity creates. Despite the magazine pictures of her as a successful children’s author, weaving tales for the charming children gathered at her knee, the reality is darker and more disturbing. The children are uncertain, unsure, who they belong to and how? And, in the age-old problem for maternity, Olive’s need to create, to be independent, drives a wedge between her and her children when their bond is needed most.

Meanwhile in the Fludd’s household Benedict’s creative genius as a potter must come first against all. This suits his protegé Philip, escaping his own demons, but the demands of genius destroy his family. His beautiful wife has given up and sits drugged amongst the dirt and ruin while Benedict sculpts obscene portrayals of his daughters.

In between, Russian anarchists and German artists flit across the pages with players from the developing museums sector and the arts and crafts movement with their children. And by each are the children betrayed, as creativity and adult needs are put first and the demands of children for stability, reason and safety ignored.

I can’t say I liked this book, but that would not be a criticism in itself if it had the power to move me, but I felt there was something lacking. Byatt knows her stuff, and it is clear that she is clever and knowledgeable. She places her characters on and in the sweep of history, describing the key elements of the time, and yet the historic sweep and lives of the characters themselves did not seem to marry together as they should. In the end I did not really care which of the characters lived or died or came through the Great War psychologically intact. Off the page they had no life for me, which is a shame because the potential for great things was there.

Advertisements

This was my little treat to myself post exam. I think this is the last P.D. James I had to read, except for The Children of Men, which I never fancied given that science fiction isn’t really a genre I’ve ever enjoyed. I put off reading this one as it is a Cordelia Gray mystery rather than a Dalgliesh one, and I normally prefer my crime fiction to be headed up by a brooding detective rather than an amateur (except of course for when I am reading the great queen of crime fiction, Agatha Christie’s, works).

However, I had no need to have any concerns on that front as, as ever, James produced a neat gem, harking back to the Golden Age of detective fiction. I think that’s why she does it for me, I’ve never enjoyed the Cornwall esq crime fiction, all blood and guts and post mortems, and brutal realism. Instead I prefer the closed circle of suspects, usually isolated in some romantic spot, each with their motive and a resolution that is surprising whilst not being unbelievable.

And here James delivers. The actress Clarissa Lisle has had her nerve shaken by a succession of poison pen letters: literary quotes about death from plays she has acted in. She has one last chance to revive her career in a one-off performance in the refurbished Victorian theatre of Courcy castle, isolated on an island two miles from shore. Clarissa’s husband hires Cordelia, who is relieved to get a well-paying job that may help to keep her struggling detective agency afloat, to ‘mind’ his wife, keep any further notes away from her and discover who is sending them.

But soon the glittering romance of Courcy castle turns sinister, with the theft of a marble sculpture of the arm of one of Queen Victoria’s children as a baby, and the realisation that the play may not be able to go ahead after all…

P.D. James does it again. A carefully crafted plot, modern yet timeless, and believable characters. I think this is perhaps my most important reason for liking her. Whilst there are many mystery novels out there, set in English villages and trying to recapture the magic of the Golden Age, they often fall short. Their characterisation is trite and unbelievable, unexpected and unrealistic things are revealed about characters at the end as a way of reaching resolution, and whilst they are easy to trot through (and I often do) they are ultimately unsatisfactory.

But not P.D. James. Her characters are real and the ends, whilst obviously part of the detective fiction genre, are not strained or discordant. Given that her last novel The Private Patient showed no signs of her powers waning, despite her writing it in her late eighties, I for one wish her many further happy years of life and hope that they continue to be productive ones.