A literary trio

Unfortunately I've got a bit behind lately in my book blogging, so in order to catch up (and in honour of Masterchef UK - my must watch TV of the moment - whose contestants seem to be largely making things in trios: a trio of pork, a trio of curries etc. etc.), here is a literary trio review.

My last three reads have been The Good Wife's Castle by Roland Vernon, Chiang Yee's The Silent Traveller in London, and Chris Cleave's Second World War set novel Everyone brave is forgiven. One of these I really didn't like very much at all, one I had mixed feelings about, and one, completely unexpectedly, I loved. So, in ascending order....

The Good Wife's Castle was a really odd novel. Much loved vicar, Granville St. Clair befriends a new parishioner, a recent immigrant from Africa, Piet Steyn, who is treated with some suspicion by the local community. St Clair however feels sorry for what appears to be a lonely man, with an uneasy past, and an uncertain future. St. Clair and Steyn are forced into an awkward alliance when they witness a suicide, and, in an attempt to make life easier for the dead man's widow, conceal the fact that her husband's mistress was in the family home on the morning he committed suicide.

Steyn, who appears to have religious views of the most conservative nature, struggles more with the secret, while to the vicar, where kindness is at least as important as faith, is keener to keep the truth from the widow. Life becomes more difficult for the vicar though as the mistress proves to be slightly unhinged and starts some emotional blackmailing. Little does he know though, that the secret that he is trying to keep from the dead man's widow is nothing compared to the secret at the bottom of Steyn's garden...

In many ways it's a very clever novel. At times I felt it was deeply misogynistic, but I think that's a little unfair. What Vernon does extremely well is to show how slight the line can be between sanity and madness, between faith that can do wonderful things and that can be creative and a force for good in the world, and a faith that can make people do very terrible things. He's also very good at showing how slight the line can be between good and evil. But, ultimately I really didn't like it. His characters didn't feel real to me with the exception of Piet Steyn, who felt all too well drawn. I wanted to have a shower for an hour after reading this. Not my kind of book at all.

Bomb damage during the Second World War siege of Malta
My most recent read was Chris Cleave's Everyone brave is forgiven. I have some misgivings about this book too, but ended up thoroughly enjoying it. Set during the first few years of the Second World War, Mary North is a bored socialite, who has a relationship with Tom, who is of a lower social class. She meets Tom's best mate, Alistair, a conservator at the Tate, who has served at Dunkirk and is about to be sent to Malta; there is an immediate attraction between the couple, but neither act on it because of Mary's relationship with Tom. When Tom is killed in an air-raid, Mary starts to write to Alistair....

I wasn't altogether convinced by the novel. What was brilliant about it? Without doubt the depiction of the war in Malta - never have I read anything that depicts this as well. The depiction of men at war was also excellent, I loved Alistair and his relationship with his friend and comrade, Simonson, who was a brilliant character. There was also much to admire about the war at home, and the portrayal of the Blitz (though it still ranks a long way behind Connie Willis' Blackout and All Clear, two of the best books ever about the Blitz). I also loved Cleave's characterisation of the black children that Mary took under her wing. Cleave portrays children really well, and I loved Zachary and his friends.

Where the novel didn't work so well was in the portrayal of women. I felt completely unconvinced both by Mary and her friend, Hilda. They felt thoroughly artificial, and at no point in the novel did I warm to Mary, though I liked the male characters.

One thing I did struggle with, and that I found interesting to think about post-read, was Cleave's lack of political correctness. Mary becomes a teacher, and becomes particularly involved with a young black boy, Zachary, whose father is part of a popular minstrel act. The N-word is frequently used, and I did wince every time I read it. I felt extremely uncomfortable about it; and yet...when I thought about it afterwards, I also thought that this was what it was like then. This is what it was like within my memory (which certainly doesn't stretch as far back as the war). Cleave was being realistic in showing what Zachary's world was like, and the challenges that he would have faced.

But at the same time, this was oddly awkward in a novel that didn't seem to quite know where it was going - was it a love story? a social commentary? a tale of men at war? a tale of the home front? It might have been undecided, but after a slightly awkward start it was an enthralling read. Don't miss the author's note or "Letters in wartime" which gives you the background to the inspiration for this novel - his own grandparents' love story, and his grand-dad's service on Malta. I would love to have known more about this. An enjoyable, if sometimes frustrating, read.

Of my trio of literature, the one that I most enjoyed was the most unexpected - a sojourner for a while on my To Be Read shelf - The Silent Traveller in London by Chiang Yee, was spotted by accident in a bookshop. I absolutely loved this, it was a complete joy.

A wave of umbrellas under Big Ben.
Drawn by Chiang Yee.
Now in the Victoria and Albert museum, London
Chiang Yee was born in China in the late nineteenth century, his family were well to do, and he became a chemistry teacher and then a magistrate, as well as serving in the Chinese army. In the 1930s he came to London to study for a MSc. Subsequent events, principally the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, meant that he was stranded in the UK. He was not to return to China till the 1970s, where he died shortly afterwards. Best known now as an author, poet and calligrapher, The Silent Traveller in London is a delightful guide to the London of the 1930s, as well as being surprisingly revealing of life in China in the same period.

It's always interesting when you have an outsider's view of a place. Chiang Yee is an author who I would love to have met, he is such a charming, self-effacing man; and there's something very endearing about his guide, illustrated with his beautiful art-work. For Chiang Yee, London was a very different place from the China that he had come from. He was thrilled by the growth of free education and growing literacy rates, he loved the weirdness of the London fog, and the sometimes comical encounters that happened within it; he was confused, and hurt, by the casual racism that he encountered, and missed the close knit family life of China. He loved the British obsession with the weather, and was thoroughly confused by the society clubs of the West End.

He delighted in the ordinary - walking in the London rain, feeding ducks in a park, watching children play, making friends. With a writer like Chiang Yee the ordinary becomes extraordinary; and miraculously his reader sees the extraordinary in the everyday ordinary too. He's such an uplifting writer. A writer who was writing at a period when the world was about to enter chaos; and he was already well aware that this was coming, for the Japanese had entered his beloved Nanjing, and nothing was going to be the same again. But through it all, Chiang kept his faith that while there was rain and pigeons and people-watching the world could be a happy place.

He reminded me a lot of my Great-Aunt Megan (the thought of whom still makes me smile, even though she died nearly 40 years ago). She had a really hard life, but she loved life, she was always a source of joy for all who knew her; and Chiang Yee struck me as being very like her. It's good to remember that there are people in the world like that, who just shine for all around them. I loved The Silent Traveller in London (there are a whole host more Silent Travellers post-World War Two), it's one of those books that can't help but make you smile and look at the world as a much happier place.


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