Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

photoAt this time of year, our thoughts inevitably turn to holidays and to what we can read whilst lying on the beach.

A ‘beach read’ requires a good plot, not too much intellectual effort and enough suspense to keep us turning the pages between sipping a drink and slapping on the sun cream Bittersweet, out in the UK on June 6th, certainly ticks all the boxes.

Mabel, known as May, meets Genevra Winslow when they are room mates at college. ‘Ev’ is everything small town May is not – cool, beautiful, East Coast and moneyed.The opening paragraph sucks you into the story :

‘Before she loathed me,before she loved me,Genevra Katherine Winslow didn’t know I existed. That’s hyperbolic, of course;by February, student housing had required us to share a hot shoe box of a room for a full six months, so she must have gathered I was a physical reality (if only because I coughed every time she smoked her Kools atop the bunk bed), but nearly until the day Ev asked me to accompany her to Winloch, I was accustomed  to her regarding me as she would a hideously upholstered armchair – something in the her way, to be utilized when absolutely necessary, but certainly not what she’d have chosen herself’ 

An unlikely friendship begins between the two girls which ends with May being invited to spend the summer at the Winslow family estate in Vermont, Winloch. At first May is dazzled by the seemingly glamourous lifestyle of the Winslows but gradually a web of lies and deceit begins to unravel.

May discovers that things are not all they seem at Winloch and to realise that it is difficult to know who to trust. Are the Winslows really all they seem ? How did the family come back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1930s ? Why is Birch, Ev’s father, so controlling and is her mother really so unfeeling?

We also begin to find out more about Mabel.She isn’t quite the reliable narrator we thought her to be at the outset. Is there a reason the Winslows have drawn her into their web ?

Of course this is a thriller and , to a certain extent ,disbelief must be suspended for it to work.Arguably at 400 plus pages it is a touch over long but it kept me gripped throughout. In the States the book is on the New York Times bestsellers list so it is definitely one for the summer suitcase.

Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

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The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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As my husband was quick to point out, I don’t like to admit I am wrong. in the case of  The Testament Of Mary, however, I was way off the mark. It took Fiona Shaw’s masterly performance at The Barbican in the stage adaptation of the novella for me to finally understand the message.

I usually enjoy Toibin’s writing – I loved Brooklyn and The Master, his portrait of Henry James, is one of my favourite books. I think he is particularly skillful in giving a voice to otherwise marginalised women. The ‘real’ story of the Virgin Mary seemed to be his ideal territory. On first reading, however, the book didn’t speak to me at all.

A friend had arranged tickets for us to see the staging of the book at The Barbican. The one-woman play had transferred from Broadway , where it had been met with accolades but also with pickets and protests by those offended as what they saw as its subversive message.

The staging is stark. Before the play begins, the audience is invited to look around the stage.Fiona Shaw sits in a glass box, muttering an incantation and appearing as a classic depiction of The Virgin.

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It is this portrayal that Mary is railing against in the book. She doesn’t want to become an icon in a story written by others, largely men. She wants us to know exactly what happened  and not the distorted story the followers are now  disseminating to suit their own ends.

Not until I watched Shaw’s performance did I really hear the scornful tone of Mary’s voice and her beautiful Irish lilt captures the poetic rhythm of the text.

There is also wit to Mary’s tale.She was suspicious of her son’s new associates from the start :

He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves or had grown old when they were still young Not one of you is normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food toward me me as if he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. ‘

She casts doubt on some of the miracles now being proclaimed by his followers. She attended the wedding of Cana in order to warn her son that he was in danger :

‘ I wondered indeed if some of the men standing in front of our table had not had enough wine. But my son stood up and spoke to those around him , asking that six stone containers full of water be brought to him. What was strange was how quickly those containers were carried into the room.I do not know whether they all contained water or wine, certainly the fist one contained water, but in all the shouting  and confusion no one knew what had happened until they began to shout that he had changed the water into wine.’

There is an urgency to her tale. She is anxious about the way the story of what happened to her son is now being retold. Facts are being changed :

‘And each time we start again at the beginning and each time they move from being excited by a detail to being exasperated by something that comes soon afterwards, another detail maybe, a refusal to add what they want me to add, or an opinion I express on their tone or their efforts to make simple sense of things that are not simple.’

The shadowy figures of his followers stalk her. She is now their virtual prisoner , held for her safety in Ephesus having fled Jerusalem and is awaiting her own death. She is an asset to them but also a liability. With the final strength of her body and mind she wants us to hear what really happened.

The book and play serves as a warning against religious fanaticism .Her son’s followers are taking a set of occurrences and twisting and changing them to suit their own ends.The truth of what happened is lost and those around them must be brain-washed into seeing the world  through their eyes.

‘ I was back in the world of fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical now and almost of of breath with excitement even before they spoke.And within this group of men I noticed that there was a set of hierarchies, men who spoke and were listened to, for example, or whose presence created silence, or who sat at the top of the table…….’

I re-read the book after watching the play. It is a powerful  invocation of the beauty and dangers of religious belief, not specifically Christian. The play is breath taking. I hope it tours  widely so that more people get the chance to see it.

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Book Review : The Wars by Timothy Findley

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This book was a recommendation from another blogger. During the course of 2014 I am reading WW1 related books and I asked for some suggestions particularly any books dealing with the experience of Commonwealth soldiers .

Like The Lie and Wake which I reviewed here this a a novel rather than memoirs. Timothy Findley is described as being one of Canada’s foremost novelists although I have to confess that I had never heard of him before.

The novel follows the fate of young Canadian,Robert Ross. A family tragedy propels Robert to enlist  in the cavalry and after a brief period of training he is shipped off to France.

Even during training Robert soon realises that the image of a glorious and heroic war that he has been sold is probably not what awaits him and his fellow recruits.Whilst out for a run on the prairie, Robert and a comrade bump into Taffler, a former football star and now war hero, throwing stones at a bottle:

‘The distance,’ he said, ‘between our lines and theirs is often no more than a hundred yards. Did you know that?’

‘No sir,’

‘One hundred yards,’ said Taffler. He gestured at the remaining bottle. It was green and had a tall, thin neck. ‘All you get in this war,’ he said,’ is one little David against another.’ Then he threw – and broke the tall, thin neck clean off. ‘Like that. Just a bunch of stone throwers.

Once over in France we see the same picture and chaos that Robert Graves and Hemingway painted of their own War experiences.

‘Not a single man was on his feet. One man lay alive on a stretcher while at the other end the stretcher bearers curled like caterpillars – dead…………… No one spoke. The dead all lay with their faces in the mud – or turned to the walls of the trench. This was the only way they could be told apart from the wounded. ‘

So far so Blackadder , but what is fascinating about this book is the structure of it. The story is circular………it ends as it starts,  although the significance and power of the beginning of the novel are not clear until we have followed Robert on his nightmare journey.

At times his story is told in a traditional 3rd person narrative but it is also interspersed with apparent interviews with  other characters and historical documents all of which  help to bring home how very personal Robert’s story is even though it takes place against a backdrop of global conflict.

Transcript : Marian Turner – 1

You will understand from what took place, why I cannot tell you what he looked like. I suppose such things are of interest. Well- of course they are! (LAUGHTER) Everyone  wants to know what people look like. Somehow it seems to say so much about a person’s possibilities’

Findley also wrote short stories and plays  and at times the descriptions are overwhelmingly vivid. Robert and some comrades become trapped in an overflowing dyke in the pitch dark and on horseback. He is confused by the large objects that keep bumping against his horse’s flanks together with a heavy fluttering sound………only to discover that the objects are the bloated corpses of dead soldiers and the fluttering comes from the crows feeding on them.

As this is a book dealing with war experiences most of the characters are necessarily male. There are two particularly fascinating and not altogether positive women characters however.

The first is Robert’s mother. As we meet her she has already lost one child and fears, with Robert’s departure for the Front that she will lose another.Her descent into addiction and madness is reminiscent of a Eugene O’Neill character.

‘I know what you want to do. I know you’re going to go away and be a soldier. Well-you can go to hell. I’m not responsible. I’m just another stranger. Birth I can give you but life I cannot.I can’t keep anyone alive. Not any more.’

The second is Barbara D’Orsey, his cold, hard hearted lover collecting wounded officers as a badge of honour only to abandon them when they need her most.

This is a harrowing tale of a young man’s quest for life whilst surrounded by insanity.It is hard to say too much more about this book without writing a spoiler, so I’ll stop.

At the end of the novel, ‘ the archivist’ finds a photograph of Robert and his sisters playing with a pony ;

‘On the back is written: ” Look! You can see our breath!” And you can.’