Three good books

I like simple things: books, being alone, or with somebody who understands – Daphne du Maurier

In these theatre-starved times, this normally stagecentric blog pauses for some personal reflections on books I’ve enjoyed reading recently.  Here are my lockdown-lit tips!

A Famished Heart by Nicola White

An episode in my first book reminded me of the hilarious Father Ted scene, where a pack of priests can’t find their way out of the lingerie section in a department store.  In A Famished Heart, Father Timoney, desperate to soothe his excruciating back, winds up in a massage parlour.

The priest, and the detective leading the investigation, DI Vincent Swan, plus Francesca MacNamara – the actress back from New York – are just three of the great characters in this new crime thriller, set in Dublin in 1982.

The story starts with the death by starvation, seemingly self-inflicted, of two middle-aged, devout sisters, in their decaying house.   Swan, unconvinced, is drawn into a web of deceit, terror and violence that remains unravelled till the very end.

I’m not a great fan of crime thrillers, though I know millions are, but this book feels different.  The author’s detachment from sheer plot allows her to explore other themes. 

The 1982 setting is ripe for the infallibility of Catholicism to start fraying at the edges.  I came to see sad, weak Father Timoney as a metaphor for the creed he starts to question.

The ugly church, his ageing flock and his sense of failure combine with the horrific deaths, the blind collusion of the faithful and senseless religious dictats, to show a dominion bound for decline.

Vincent Swan (who first appeared in White’s 2013 The Rosary Garden and is due to return in the trilogy, of which A Famished Heart is the first part) is a sensitive, intelligent cop among a bunch of corrupt time-servers.  About two-thirds of the way through, I was beginning to wonder if he was too pensive to solve the crime, but he gets there in the end, battered and bruised.

Francesca, sister to the dead women, has crossed the Atlantic to bury them, but she can’t meanwhile resist the offer of a part in a Dublin production of The Trojan Women.   She almost starts to act out the grieving next-of kin.  Yet, in the end, she struggles – as much as the priest and the cop – with her own role.  Does she stick with the narrow certainties of home, which bring mostly pain, or resume her precarious New York theatre life?

Now based in Scotland, Nicola White promises more offbeat spine-chillers to come.  I can’t wait!

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

My second book is a cracking page-turner, but great literature too, with a brave, independent female protagonist, Mary Yealand, just 23 years old.  She sees the world clearly, especially how unequal the struggle is for women compared to men. 

Written in 1935, but set in wild, wintry 1820’s Cornwall, the book combines a compelling, violent story with great insights into the times, places, atmospheres and values of its setting.

The weather – cold, windy and often hostile – is a major player from the start when Mary, having lost her poverty-stricken mother, travels across the Bodmin moors from south to north-coast Cornwall in a coach, on a dark December night.

With great Gothic touches, she is warned off her destination where her aunt, her only relative, lives.  This is the much-feared Jamaica Inn, where no traveller dare stop these days.  Mary discovers why in the first few chapters, as she gets to know her wicked giant of an uncle, Joss Merlyn.

The inn is the haunt of evil, foul-smelling bandits steeped in their crimes: smuggling and shipwrecks.  Desperados, they fight and kill to keep their ill-gotten gains.

It’s told, in the third person, almost entirely from Mary’s point-of-view.  It’s non-stop action as she strikes out on to the windswept, treacherous moorlands to meet people who, she hopes, will help her.

These include Joss’s brother, Jem, plus Francis Davey, a freak of nature – an albino vicar.  Neither of these turns out to be what they first seem and Mary’s actions drive the narrative forwards, to reveal their true intentions.

It’s remarkable, original and had me gripped from start to finish.  Brilliant! 

Du Maurier’s books have often been adapted for the screen, with varying levels of success.  The BBC 2014 version of Jamaica Inn was plagued by sound issues; thousands complained of the actors mumbling.  Clearly, nobody said: Ar-tic-u-la-tion, darling! 

The Hitchcock film version, 1939, starred Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.  Not that you’d know, from the trailer, that she was even in it!  Cinema’s sexism goes back a long way.  

Rebecca is familiar from the 1940 film, also directed by Hitchcock (he completed his Du Maurier trilogy with The Birds in 1963) with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.  I remember Emma Rice’s thrilling stage Rebecca for Kneehigh at the King’s, Glasgow in 2015. 

Now I’m keen to read more of Du Maurier’s 18 works of fiction.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

My third lockdown-lit starts and ends at the National Theatre, London.  The first character, Amma, has her play opening there.  Black, lesbian and a rebel for years, she’s hit the big time, or joined the establishment, at last.

The relationships – mothers, daughters, friends and lovers – stravaig and loop across these separate personalities as Evaristo builds up vivid portraits and backstories of the 12, mostly black, women.

Some are close, some glance off each other.  I was drawn in, trying to piece the bits of the jigsaw together, as the unusual and unconventional characters merge and emerge.  Even the more buttoned-down figures – banker Carole, teachers Shirley and Penelope – have hidden depths.

It’s a satisfying read, a chain of short stories that become more than the sum of their parts.  The patchwork quilt weaves generations, times and continents. 

It’s made richer by what Evaristo calls her fusion fiction style.  Poetry mixed with prose; actual events – Brexit, the Trumpquake etc – with fanciful passages; facts and dreams; the mundane and the sublime.

I’m fascinated by a 13th character: Bernadine Evaristo herself, Woolwich Laureate and first black British writer to win the Booker Prize.  She’s had a fantastically full career, her own life story exemplary in breaking new ground.

Like Amma, she’s been slogging away in theatre and writing for 40 years.  Now Girl, Woman Other has been optioned for TV and the Booker triumph has multiplied her sales internationally.  I’d like to get into her other 7 books, including Mr Loverman, about a closet gay, Caribbean grandad coming out; she clearly has an appetite for the exceptional!  Based on reading Girl, Woman, Other, I’d say her success is richly deserved.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, April 2020.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

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