Indie Book of the Week
Requiem for a Holy Island
Zecharia Plavin

Your Book Here Free / IBOTW Archive

Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple by Alice Walker book cover
The Color Purple (1982) is Alice Walker’s famous womanist novel which, spanning decades, looks at the lives of black women in the early twentieth century and the forces of oppression that govern their lives. The protagonist, Celie, narrates the novel through a series of letters addressed to God as she attempts to make it through the life she has been dealt. Growing up in poverty, Celie is molested by her step-father and only escapes the cycle of abuse and pregnancy that marks her teenage years by being married off to a local man named Albert. He is little better than Celie’s step-father but when she meets her new husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, Celie’s education in life truly begins. Shug is vibrant – a singer, sexually confident, and smart to the world. The pair become more than friends and Shug gives Celie the skills she needs to shake off the passivity that keeps her in her old life, and seek reconciliation with her estranged sister, Nettie, who has ended up living with an African tribe as a missionary by a strange series of events. When Celie eventually learns of her sister’s fate, she begins to dream of being reunited and living amongst her family once more. Throwing off all the patriarchal shackles that have impoverished her life (including the white, male god to whom she writes) Celie puts her faith instead in the women around her and the relationships she has built. There are definite links with the myth of Philomela, which intertwines rape, the silencing of the female voice, and feminine subjectivity. A story of oppression, the strength of female bonds, and a consideration of one’s spiritual place in the world, The Color Purple is a novel that faces the reality of life lived under numerous oppressive forces.

As an intersectional discussion of some of the issues faced by black women in the twentieth century, The Color Purple is important. Walker demonstrates a strength similar to her characters in choosing not to wallow in the oppression and cruelty suffered by her characters, to avoid looking always back to a troubled past. Celie’s solution is an accepting passivity that is finally rewarded with a sense of cosmic justice when she breaks her own shackles, whereas Walker as the author is the complete opposite of passive, digging into the societal issues that allow the lives of her characters to be abused in various different ways from the first page. She challenges ideas of femininity and shows a vast array of modes of femininity. If Ralph Ellison’s invisible man had no voice thirty years before the publication of The Color Purple, then Walker has located in Celie a person whose presence is even less acknowledged by society: the black, poor lesbian.

Critics have questioned whether the broadly negative portrait of black men in the novel is helpful, or whether it perpetuates the racist myth that black men are savages who are not fit to exist in civil society. Undeniably, Walker takes a hard line with her male characters, but all of her characters exist in a framework where oppression is a complex concept, and where black men are both oppressed and oppressors. The lack of a straight-forward dynamic makes the novel a more thought-provoking experience, and blame (remarkably) is rarely thrown about. Walker goes beyond challenging the traditional positions of male and female further by queering the heteronormative family unit through Celie and Shug’s relationship. The missionary trip to Africa of Celie’s sister Nettie also offers an opportunity to compare gender roles in the Olinka tribe that she serves – a group that might be considered ‘savages’ by traditional Western standard – and those in the American South. It’s an interesting discussion and certainly challenges ideas of whom exactly is progressive – while the Olinka have less rigid ideas about gender, they maintain certain archaic traditions like the mutilation of young members of the tribe as a rite of passage, again allowing for few easy conclusions. Though many of the men in the novel are frequently set in a tyrannical stance towards their women, however, The Color Purple is less about the terror of living under patriarchal oppression and more a celebration of the resilience of women, their ability to solve their own problems, and the potentiality of a gender that has been badly stunted by social structures. In short, The Color Purple is a womanist novel, a term coined by Walker in her 1979 short story ‘Coming Apart’.

Celie’s redemption is very much one of the individual succeeding over societal forces. However, through running a small business making pants as well as inheriting property, Celie is tied to the capitalist world where redemption is, in some way, linked to money. This may be a realistic reading of the world, but it both implicates Celie in an economic structure that has endorsed and profited from the suppression and enslavement of black people, and also champions the myth of individualism (despite Celie requiring Shug’s assistance to assert her own individuality). Also problematic is the issue of what Celie does with her freedom when she gets it: unlike Shug, she opts for domesticity and the simple pleasures of family life. Again, this may be realistic to the world but it still leaves Celie having chosen domesticity, an unradical view of femininity.

Celie’s relationship with Shug shows the power of redemptive love as some of Shug’s confidence and self-assurance is passed to Celie, but Walker’s discussion in the novel is larger than human beings. Celie’s move away from a monotheistic view of god and towards a more pantheistic view not only parallels her breaking from traditional patriarchal oppression but is in itself a very important aspect of the novel. There is a danger when reading a book about black characters or written by a black author, because of their sparsity in mainstream publishing, that one assumes the book is intended to somehow speak for the broader “black experience”, whatever that might mean. That is an almighty weight to place on the shoulders of any one author and invariably leads to a perversion of the author’s intentions when reading a work, or simply acts as a prism through which to criticise a work, meaning the author inherits a fight that they have not (necessarily) asked for. The Color Purple is one of those books that has been pulled apart from all kinds of direction and somewhere between the varying critical approaches, the simple human story is somehow subordinated. It’s notable that the colour of the title is discussed far less than the colour of the main character, and that is a shame, as the prominence of the colour purple should highlight to the reader its importance in the text. Purple comes to stand for hope and the wonder of the human spirit, it is a miraculous burst of colour when it appears in nature and indicates the triumph of hope in the face of misery. For Celie it becomes symbolic of the thrown off Christian god and her move towards understanding and interpreting her (spiritual) world not through man-made models of religiosity, but through a more general wonder at the natural world. Spiritual freedom is a concept common to all human life, and whatever else one reads in The Color Purple, one should not forget the importance of the spiritual discussion.

Celie’s search for spiritual identity is part of a wider discussion about identity in The Color Purple. The epistolary form of the novel comes about as Celie is forced into silence by her abusive step-father (a silence reinforced by Albert and the wider society), and so the letters she writes to God are her only means of expression. Indeed, the novel is in no small way about finding a voice, a means of expression. The turning point of the narrative is when Celie asserts her right to existence: “I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly, and can't cook. . . But I'm here.” It is a courageous act of self-assertion and a moment when Celie’s voice is truly heard by others. Similar to that classic epistolary novel, Pamela, here there is the withholding of a character’s, an abuser’s, surname. For Celie’s husband, Albert, is referred to only as Mr. _____ for the majority of the novel. Names are an important symbol of identity and a constant battleground in the war of oppression. By withholding Albert’s surname (he being the most prominent example of this in the novel – although Celie’s surname is never revealed either), Walker both subverts the patriarchal model that sees married women’s identity subsumed by their husband’s, but also sets Albert up, like Richardson’s Mr. B-, as someone whose identity is too dangerous to reveal.

The Color Purple is arguably as well-known as it is due to the Steven Spielberg film adaptation and thus there are a multitude of opinions voiced on the book, many of which are based more on the film than the original text. Also skewing critical opinion is the fact that if one attempts to read the novel through the lens of Western realism, the contrivances involved in the ending become problematic. Indeed, critics have often pointed to the novel’s rather loose structure, shallow characterisation, and slightly clunky dialogue as faults in Walker’s prose. It would be a mistake to too heavily enforce a realist aesthetic onto a novel that clearly sets itself up as something less rigid, and more clearly rooted in less formal storytelling cultures. The novel is ultimately one of hope – of the belief that amongst all the awful things in life, redemption is possible, that happiness is never an impossible dream. Celie is able to reclaim her own spirituality and her own sexuality, and this is no small thing for a girl who starts life with the world seemingly stacked against her. Innumerable readings are possible, but it is the spiritual and personal journey that Celie goes on which is at the centre of The Color Purple for Alice Walker.

When I picked this up, I was warned it would make me cry. It didn't. But then I am heartless. I enjoyed it enough, with some reservations. Not a great book, but a good one.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Color Purple on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Color Purple on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of The Color Purple on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of The Color Purple on Amazon (US)

Reading Plan: August 2015

The Trial by Franz Kafka book cover
This month Harper Lee’s second ever novel knocked that queen of kink E. L. James off the top of the bestsellers chart – is this some kind of magical utopia where order is restored to the reading world? I think it must be… oh wait, good ol’ Atticus is a card-carrying racist these days? What’s next revivify Peter Rabbit and turn him into a horny little sex pest? That’s it, #TeamChristian all the way – sex perverts > racists any day. (To my shame, or possibly my credit, I just had to google that to check Christian had an ‘h’ in it.) In all seriousness, Go Set a Watchman is an intriguing prospect and I’m glad to hear we’ve not been served up a formulaic bit of nostalgia – who would have expected Harper Lee not to ruffle some feathers anyway?

Putting the publishing event of the century aside, or whatever glib label marketing departments have slapped on the return of old Finchy, how’s everyone’s summer been so far? I hope you’ve all noticed that I have, for once, been motoring through the books I planned to read this month. In truth, so much so that I now seem to be a bit reading-fatigued – I’m not sure that’s a thing that bibliophiles are supposed to admit to, but sometimes you wind up with too many stories whizzing around your head at once and they kind of crash into each other. For instance, I keep thinking a particular passage from Nausea about the worthlessness of memories is from Kafka’s The Trial, or The Good Soldier. Not a big thing, but it muddles my impressionable brain – am I the only one who can’t keep his stories straight?

Speaking of The Trial, that’ll be my book of the month for August. I haven’t reviewed any Kafka on here as yet and it would be good to hear all of your opinions on the man who gave his name to one of the most irritating words you’ll ever read in a review, namely ‘Kafkaesque’, as in ‘doesn’t the frequent employment of the word Kafkaesque to illustrate a slightly otherworldly charm to a novel strike you as the sort of thing a character of Kafkaesque mindlessness is likely to trot out in a seemingly never-ending, one might say Kafkaesque, cycle of reviews that make up the rather futile fodder that passes for intellectualism in the Kafkaesque world of newspeak?’ Anyway, according to reviews The Trial is apparently quite Kafkaesque, which is reassuring.

Next up is The Color Purple, which is a rather strange, even Kafkaesque – ok, I’ll stop now – story by Alice Walker, which was, of course, famously made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Spanning nearly half a century, the novel tells the story of an African-American woman growing up in the South, who has to contend with all manner of disadvantage in her life. It’s a story a lot of you will probably already know, but it is quite new to me.

I’m also planning to read The Catcher in the Rye as someone likened my book to it months ago (in style, I hasten to add, not quality). That intrigued me, and it seems that just about everyone has read Salinger’s classic apart from me, so I’d better get on and go through it before someone else tells me there is an obvious literary link there and I look like a fool for being quite clueless on the subject (or the kind of terribly evasive creep who doesn’t acknowledge his influences).

That’s my August all stacked up and ready to roll then – what will you all be enjoying over summer while you’re holidaying about the world like the bunch of decadent jetsetters we all know bibliophiles are?

Notable Posts from July
Review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice
Interview: James Rice
Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Review: Emma by Jane Austen
Review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Review: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Review: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre book cover
Nausea (1938), La Nausée in the original French, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel and an exploration of his early thoughts on existentialism through the meandering existence of one man. Roquentin, a man on the brink of his thirtieth birthday, is undertaking a scholarly project in the small town of Bouville (modelled on Le Havre). Having travelled the world, he has settled on writing a biography of the Marquis de Rollebon, a minor figure in the French Revolution, in the hope that the book, once finished, will afford him some form of legacy that will transcend his mortal existence. Through Nausea’s narrative, written as Roquentin’s diary, it becomes clear that Roquentin leads an empty existence, spending his days working through papers in the local library, and his evenings in cafes and restaurants – all of this in suffocating isolation. He makes love without emotion to a local café owner occasionally, and, as he goes about his research, shares small pleasantries with a fellow library user who he has named ‘the Autodidact’ and who is reading his way through Bouville’s complete library alphabetically. This is the extent of Roquentin’s contact with other human life. In his isolation, Roquentin suffers from the nausea, as he calls it – a sense of overwhelming sickness at the knowledge that he exists in a world rife with other things and people existing. Little can stave off this nausea or the sense of meaninglessness in existence, except perhaps the creation of some form of art that will endure and transcend Roquentin’s life. A meditation on art and existence, politics and society, Nausea, which Iris Murdoch called the ‘Tour de Force of a young man,’ has become a staple novel in the existentialist reading list.

Roquentin’s purpose in starting the diary which presents the narrative is to understand and document the nausea that he suffers, detailing his small perceptions so as to ruminate on their deeper meanings, and how he exists in relation to the world. This process of self-reflection is important to the novel, and, while overwhelming at first, will eventually provide Roquentin with the knowledge he seeks, namely that the consciousness of his own being is what defines his existence, and that his personal reality is all that exists. Ultimately, the diary proves a record of his rebirth, or perhaps one might say metamorphosis, from hopelessness to a sense of purpose as Roquentin, inspired by Some of these Days (a ragtime tune), determines, at the novel’s close, on writing a novel himself. Whether this epiphany of salvation through creation is ironic or not, here the creation of art, follwing the consumption of art, is used to provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence completing Roquentin’s transformation, which has been hinted at by images of metamorphosis throughout the novel. In finding aesthetic solutions to the fundamental problems of its main character, Nausea has echoes of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Indeed, the two books are strongly linked thematically, both featuring a male narrator on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday who struggles with an intensified perception of the world around him. This manifests itself in a fear that must be worked out through self-reflection in diary form.

A deep loneliness pervades the novel, not only Roquentin’s but others around him. The disconnect between different people paints the picture of a rather sad world in which lives rarely merge, and Roquentin learns that he cannot rely on anyone else for his salvation, that life must be faced alone. This loneliness is representative of a godless existence in which every individual is essentially alone in the universe, surrounded by, but not connected to, the individual experiences of existence of others. This idea of disparate existence is in sharp contrast to the type of humanism espoused by Jules Romains, and Sartre challenges arguments for the solidarity of man and any fraternal feeling towards others which could be taken as a shared existence. Though well-intentioned as the humanist ideas that Sartre attacks are, Sartre satirises and dismisses them by placing them in the mouth of the Autodidact who is a rather foolish character, and looked down upon (in some ways in an elitist sense because of the Autodidact’s self-taught status). According to Sartre’s form of existentialism, every individual experiences complete freedom to respond to the indifferent world in any way they see fit (this implies being for the sake of being, a state which Sartre calls être pour-soi). Paradoxically, this immense freedom is a remarkably heavy burden. Roquentin is aware of his freedom but unsure what to do with it and overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Sartre originally intended the novel to be title ‘Melancholia,’ which links it to an engraving of a disturbed and ponderous thinker by Albrecht Dürer named Melencolia I, which was important to Sartre’s creative process while developing the novel. If one were to read Nausea literally it seems clear that Roquentin is suffering from a form of melancholy, or depression as it would now be labelled. His sense of complete superfluity in the face of an indifferent world, his hopelessness and lack of pleasure in life, and his distortions of reality through small fantasies all point to a mind suffering from mental illness. In truth, Nausea can be read in a whole number of ways: as a look at how the bourgeoisie use conventions to hide from freedom, a theory of time, a discussion of the immediate present and the memory of the past, the use of language to form reality through narrative and how this compares to the lived experience, and a discussion of the human desire of immortality. There is also the potential for a very interesting LGBT reading.

Most, though, will read Nausea as an explication of Sartre’s existentialism. As an introduction to this, Nausea is perhaps a little too opaque to afford any deep understanding of the philosophy for the uninitiated reader and must be coupled with a reading of essays, particularly Being and Nothingness, on the subject to truly appreciate everything that Sartre does in the novel. Expressing existential ideas through fiction does, however, give them an immediacy that non-fiction cannot provide, as well as a sense of how theoretical ideas relate to the reality of everyday life.

This immediacy is compounded by the reading of time that informs the narrative, refusing the existence of anything but the present. As Roquentin writes: “The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was that which exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist.” In this form of temporal negation, Roquentin finds life to be a series of present moments without a past, and his memories do little to console him from his current nausea. The biography of the Marquis de Rollebon that brought him to Bouville begins to seem an absurd task in light of this position, for, how can history exist with any authority in a world where only the present is real and all reality is subjective? However, when an old flame asks Roquentin to meet her in Paris, it becomes clear that the disconnect between the past and the present is somewhat illusory, or confined to the theoretical, as Roquentin is still guided and affected by his past.

One of the most difficult tricks of the philosophical novel is ensuring the work is successful as both a story and an explication of a particular philosophical theory. In exploring the aching vacuousness and tedium of existence, Sartre runs the risk of failing to construct a plot that works purely as fiction outside of his philosophical intent. Although necessary for his purpose, this lack of a compelling story will turn some readers off. The puncturing of the dramatic is well done, however, demonstrating the emptiness of existence. Events are allowed to pass by without any grandiose readings into them: they exist in the moment and then pass out of existence. In this way, the overriding story is subjugated in favour of creating the impression of existence that Sartre desires to represent. The details of Roquentin’s story are unimportant, it is the experience and ideas that matters.

This is not to say Sartre’s prose does not engage the reader. He conjures images that stick in the mind, often reminiscent of surrealist paintings by artists like Dali, and he is able, through Roquentin, to make observations of people which turn them into grotesquely memorable portraits of humanity. This vividness comes in snatches and Sartre would later go on to write philosophical novels that proved more satisfying on the story level, but here there is still plenty to enjoy, and through the fragmented series of images, Sartre captures a somewhat abstract impression of twentieth century life.

As already mentioned, Sartre’s later work, Being and Nothingness, sets out his form of existentialism in far clearer detail and provides an excellent companion piece to Nausea. For Sartre, every individual has total freedom over life, the ability to choose different paths at different moments. The ultimate choice is to choose being – that is, existence – over nothingness. It is a choice that is common to all, and by determining on creating a redemptive piece of art at the close of Nausea, Roquentin asserts his choice for existence over nothingness. It appears almost a non-choice on first examination, but it is in fact the largest of choices and the one that binds all humans together in a shared complicity to exist, to repress the nausea.

I've always thought of this as a trendy wanker's book (possibly in no small part down to its appearance in the first ever episode of Skins - I know, legit reason, right?), that and it is one of the first books most budding (therefore, obnoxious) existentialists run into, so it has bad associations with the sweaty adolescent philosopher. It is, however, a better book than to be consigned to that status. I knew it when I was an obnoxious teenage philosopher and I know it now, when I am marginally less obnoxious. 

Useful Links
Reviews of Nausea on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Nausea on Amazon (US)

You Might Also Enjoy...
Review: The Outsider by Albert Camus
The Outsider (1942) is one of the best known existential novels, and Albert Camus's early attempt to grapple with absurdism, and relay it in an abstract, accessible form. The philosophical ruminations are embodied by... [Read More]
Review: Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Hunger (1890), Sult in the original Norwegian, is the story of an unnamed journalist who haunts the streets of Christiana (now Oslo), treading the fine line between existence and death. Maintaining his high ideals, he refuses help while he struggles... [Read More]
Review: The Immoralist by Andre Gide
The Immoralist (1902), L’Immoraliste in the original French, is the tale of one young scholar’s path to self-discovery, following a period of transformative introspection. Michel, the novel’s troubled protagonist, gathers together three... [Read More]

Review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford book cover
The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford is a modernist classic, an intricately worked novel that unpicks the downfall of two couples who meet by chance while travelling in Europe. John Dowell, a wealthy American and the narrator of the tale, cares for his wife Florence, who has been diagnosed with a weak heart, making sure that she does not fall victim to over-excitement. When the couple come across Edward and Leonora Ashburnham – a well-to-do English couple – the quartet hit it off. Edward is, according to Dowell, a great physical specimen and somewhat of a sentimentalist, while Leonora is more savvy than her husband, and feels her Catholic heritage keenly. Beneath the polished veneer of the affluent couples lurks real people with real failings, full of paradoxes and, ultimately, unable to match up to the idealistic front that they project. Over many years the couples come together around Europe, and their lives intertwine as they pull others into their collective story, which culminates in adultery, death, and suicide. Dowell relates all this after the final action has been taken, revising and revisiting events as he attempts to spin his story. Few of the ‘facts’ of the plot are obscured from the start – Dowell makes plain that Florence has had an affair with Edward, and that both the adulterous pair have since ended their own lives. Graham Greene called it “the finest French novel in the English language,” and with the delicacy of delivery and intimate tracking of the human consciousness and relationships it is easy to understand the assertion.

Much of the discussion about the novel revolves around the narrator, John Dowell. As he relates the events that shape the lives (and deaths, in some cases) of the characters, details of the story are subtly pulled apart, reimagined, and reinterpreted. In this way, the novel explores the relationship between truth and perspective, reality and appearance, and how truth is, always, in the eye of the beholder, no matter how he must contort the facts to reach his conclusion. Whether Dowell is reliable or not, and to what extent he was cognizant of his position as cuckold is absolutely crucial to the different readings of the novel. In truth, only a close reading can really begin to pick these questions apart, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this review, he appears a narrator prone to self-delusion, perhaps to protect himself from the grim reality of the facts, but certainly unreliable to some degree as his self-reflective statements throughout attest. Ford works the narrative beautifully, using paradoxical sentences frequently, Dowell obfuscating the truth, often through his own failings, while Ford reveals it.

When Dowell pre-empts the reader’s reaction to his tale in his opening line by declaring it “the saddest story I have ever heard,” he immediately announces both his pitch as a storyteller and his own passivity within the events themselves. For, at times, there is something decidedly melodramatic in Dowell’s telling of the story, he assuming the role of storyteller and ornamenting the facts with Gothic style images laced with pathos. That he chooses to spin his tale in this way marks it out very clearly as an artificial form of reality, like any story, and this draws the construction of the plot into a discussion of not just Dowell’s own perspective but of storytelling technique. Like Dowell, Ashburnham cannot spin a story: while the men who Dowell and he mix with on their trips in Europe tell lewd after-dinner stories Edward remains mute, unable or unwilling to participate. In the case of both men, the ability to formulate a narrative creates a barrier to knowledge – for Dowell this is the understanding of the facts he has available to him over the course of his wife’s affair and beyond, and for Edward it is purely self-knowledge, the rich interior life that might save him from his downfall.

As a player in his own story Dowell is an empty vessel who finds meaning only in relation to the other characters. By traditional measures of masculinity – dominance, sexual potency – he is a failure and somewhat in awe of Edward Ashburnham, or perhaps suppressing a closeted romantic love towards him. Dowell may claim to be a sentimentalist in the same mould as Ashburnham, but it takes some artistry with the facts to bring him to this conclusion. Indeed, throughout the shifting interpretation of his own narrative, Dowell exposes a beautifully-realised form of revisionism: a state in which memories are edited to fit the narrative one wishes them to have. Was Edward a hopeless sentimentalist, Florence a brazen adulteress, or Leonora an emotionally-detached Catholic? It is remarkably difficult to say, given Dowell’s version of the story, inherited from Leonora, is all that is presented.

Dowell’s seemingly credulous acceptance of the lies his wife sold him is clearly, to some extent, self-deceptive, but the jumbled order in which facts come to him or are appreciated is representative of a realist’s stance to storytelling on Ford’s part. It is Jamesian in its subtlety but much more chaotic than James’s style and places Dowell in a state of complete flux where the ideas that held his world together – of decency, etc. – are severely compromised and he is cut loose in a new world that he does his best not to acknowledge. Indeed, even by the novel’s close he is afforded no great revelation, nothing that can impose a sense of order on his tangled memories.

While Dowell may not be in the same mould as Ashburnham, both are emasculated by their wives – Edward is forced to surrender control of his finances to Leonora after losing vast sums in an adulterous liaison, and Dowell is made a eunuch and cuckold by Florence, who diminishes his position as husband to mere servant to her everyday needs while others satisfy her sexual desires. The fact is, neither Edward nor Dowell know how to be ‘men’ – either through lack of education in intimacy or lack of strength and base passion, both fail to live up to the expectation of masculinity in the late-Victorian/Edwardian period and their marriages are irretrievably unbalanced as a consequence.

Ford originally wanted the novel to be called 'The Saddest Story' but his publisher objected. He then suggested they might prefer The Good Soldier, supposedly, with no small amount of irony and was rather shocked to find it taken up. The original title highlights the importance of sadness in the story, and it is from the lack of knowledge or self-knowledge that much of the pathos springs. Like Austen before him, Ford is concerned with the education of the heart. Whether with one’s own heart or the heart of another, intimacy is very important here and often conflated with knowledge. Edward and Leonora have not, Dowell reports, spoken in private for thirteen years. Theirs is an arranged marriage and Edward’s sentimental heart is melted not by his wife’s cold strength but by a vulnerability which he finds in others. To say the Ashburnhams’ marriage is loveless is not quite right – perhaps it would be better to call it hopeless. Edward’s heart is too full of sentimental feeling and his mind too empty, too lacking in self-knowledge, and Leonora’s conscience is too easily outsourced to her spiritual advisors who offer only platitudes where nuanced insight into humanity is needed.

As an extension of the intimacy issue, sexual passion is shown to be destructive both in its repression and its expression – repression by Dowell and Leonora, expression by Edward and Florence. It is just one of the rather fatalistic views of human nature expressed in the book. There are imperial undertones to Edward’s domineering approach to seduction that draw parallels with the imperial scramble for colonies. Indeed, there are a number of larger themes that recur in the novel, beyond imperialism. Edward and Leonora represent a class of people whose nature of existence was changing rapidly. The traditions and systems of Feudal Europe were being pulled apart by the Great War and Ford’s perfectly timed novel reflected the inevitability of this disintegration. In the century past, the landed gentry held an esteemed position, if one still open to criticism, but by the time The Good Soldier reached the reading public, the lives of the landed gentry had begun to look significantly emptier and less noble. This too adds to the burden of sadness felt within the story’s core.

Religion is the other major topic touch upon. Dowell locates Leonora’s secretive nature within her Catholic heritage, which must, he supposes, predispose her to concealment given the position of Catholics in English society historically. Indeed, Dowell appears considerably concerned with Leonora’s religion, tending to other her at times on the basis of it. For, being a non-Catholic he sees their worldviews as almost completely incompatibility despite having little evidence for this assertion.

As mentioned earlier on, there is no definitive reading of The Good Soldier (if, as the deconstructionalists doubt, such a thing can be said to exist for any novel) and so this review adds to a body of differing opinion but is very much one opinion in a multitude of alternatives. The one thing that most critics agree on is that The Good Soldier is a great book. Ford himself believed it to be his best work and, in its intricate and beautifully constructed form it is hard to disagree with this. As an example of literary impressionism, it is an essential part of the twentieth century canon, even if readers unpick the tangled web that Ford weaves in quite remarkably different ways. There are plenty of authors who have hailed The Good Soldier as a masterpiece, including Graham Greene and Julian Barnes whose own themes and styles echo Ford’s, to name but two. A hundred years since its publication and the novel remains immensely readable and emotionally-wrought while being intellectually challenging as a mystery and admirable as a literary achievement. Ford described The Good Soldier as his ‘great auk’s egg’ – his most complete, perfect creation, it remains a complex mystery that sits, one might say, at the point at which the twentieth century lost its sheen, fifteen years into the most changeful century in human history.

Technically a gorgeous book that you can't help but appreciate. It made me think of The Remains of the Day, Lolita, The Sense of an Ending, The Great Gatsby, and it sits comfortably in the company of books of that quality. Anyone who claims The Good Soldier is boring doesn't know a good book when they read one.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Good Soldier on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of The Good Soldier on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Good Soldier on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of The Good Soldier on Amazon (US)

You Might Also Enjoy... 

Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a generation defining novel that has come to represent the finery and despair of Jazz Age America and its wealthy elite. The narrator, Nick Carraway, having returned from the war becomes restless ... [Read More]
Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day (1989) is a simple, heart-breaking story of personal repression and missed opportunities. The novel is narrated by Stevens, an English butler clinging on to old world gentility while the world around him embraces the new... [Read More]
Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Sense of an Ending (2011) is Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning exploration of time and memory. A short novel, The Sense of the Ending follows the life of Tony Webster through his time as a pseudo-intellectual adolescent and ... [Read More]

Review: Emma by Jane Austen

Emma by Jane Austen book cover
Emma (1815), a rich comedy of manners is, arguably, Jane Austen’s finest novel – a blending of her serious literary intentions with the effervescent charm of her most readable novels. The eponymous heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is a young lady who has wanted for very little in her life, raised in Highbury to believe she has few imperfections and is superior to just about everyone about her – in short, she is a snob. After successfully finding a husband for her governess, she believes herself to be an excellent matchmaker and is soon bringing her powers to bear on the local community, attempting to arrange more couplings. She makes a particular friend of Harriet Smith whom she believes to be of high birth. She determines to find Harriet a suitable partner, rejecting in the process a perfectly good proposal from a gentleman-farmer. While Emma is engaged in rearranging her charge’s romantic life, a couple of visitors arrive at Highbury: Frank Churchill, a charming young man, and Jane Fairfax, a fairly reserved girl. Although Emma feels no real connection with Jane, she strikes up a rather flirtatious friendship with Frank Churchill. However, it is George Knightley – a neighbour who, being sixteen years her senior, has known Emma since her birth – who provides a voice of reason to all Emma’s attempts at matchmaking, a more sombre mentor figure who chastises where others turn a blind eye. Plenty of other characters are drawn into the romantic entanglements that Emma weaves and observes, and events play out through social minutiae as Emma is forced to learn a good deal about herself and her own heart while attempting to direct the hearts of others.

Emma provides a vivid picture of rural and village life in the early nineteenth century and the significant issues of growing up and picking a mate. As Emma manoeuvres men and women in her attempts to make good matches, the importance of status becomes clear. For Emma’s family is of very good standing in her community and she is acutely aware of where others sit in the grand scheme of things. Emma might see innate qualities in Harriet which suggest high-birth, but in a society so tightly structured around status, attempting to break from one class to another can be a hazardous thing as Emma learns. Interestingly, in making her matches, Emma gives far greater concern to status than any affection or suitability of temperament that there might be between two people. Unlike more romantically-imagined heroines, here is a character whose conception of the marriage market is based more firmly on economics than sentimentality (for others at least). It is perhaps not surprising then that Emma, so assured of her opinion on so many topics, cannot be said to know her own heart with any great intimacy. This makes for a delicious centre to the novel, and exposes the problem of social demands governing feelings.

As the young people go about arranging their romantic lives there is an evident struggle against expectation and the older generation. Although depicted in a particular time and space, it is a struggle for independence and autonomy that has universal interest. For Emma, who has inherited wealth in her favour, marriage is a choice – for the other female characters it is a financial necessity that will see them secure a safe future for themselves. Emma is aware of her own, privileged position of relative autonomy and so voices her feeling that marriage, for her if not for others, must only be undertaken on the basis of her being in love. Marriage creates an interesting conflict at the centre of the novel: Emma must be tamed and educated out of her less desirable habits by a (future-)husband. Entering a marriage contract (if on even terms), then, sees Emma relinquish some of her autonomy and accept the guidance of her mentor-lover. She is not the only woman in the novel who finds an identity through marriage and this raises interesting questions, particularly for feminist readers. While Emma plays with the literary conventions of the novel of instruction, it is also bound by class-consciousness and male instruction. This dynamic, between social forces and the individual, is a brilliantly subtle irony on Austen’s part, a way of exploring some pretty radical questions about how society is organised.

The mentor-lover is a common trope in Austen’s writing, but here the instructive nature of female friendships is more deeply explored too. Members of the leisure class to which Emma belongs have such an abundance of time on their hands that it is inevitable they should occupy themselves with constructed ideas of ‘work’, whether that be organising the romantic lives of others or enforcing the small social mores that make up polite society. In this sense, the novel acts as a warning about prescriptive advice and shows the messiness of attempting to enact ‘common wisdom’ in the real world. For Austen, self-knowledge and nuanced solutions are the key to navigating the various tests life throws in front of one.

The small community of Highbury offers an excellent setting for Austen to explore the intricacies of social hierarchy that interested her. The plotting is exquisitely controlled: through subtle misdirection Austen weaves the stories of each character into a rather bewildering mix for the reader, leaving clues to each character’s heart that are not easily spotted on first reading. It is artfully done, and it is in the unravelling of both the tangled plot threads and Emma’s own mind that the lasting enjoyment of Emma is assured.

A comedy of manners, Emma revolves around these rather tangled communications and affairs of the heart, with major scandal or tragedy never threatening to enter the small world of the novel. While not a fan of the genre, Austen does not banish all tropes of Romantic fiction but merely moves them from the centre of the story to the edges – in this way her fictional world allows romantic impulses while decidedly insisting that they must not be centre stage in a novel or a life. This creates a fictional world where realism and romanticism meet in a pleasing mesh of styles. Some of the finest pleasures of Emma is in the small details. Austen brilliantly exposes how seemingly trivial events – a broken boot lace, an afternoon’s picnic – can have far larger consequences than might be supposed. The dialogue, too, turns on the smallest minutiae: the delicate unfurling of detailed conversation, far from being dull as it might have been in another’s hands, shows Austen’s fine skill for dialogue and social intricacy.

In the fictional world of Highbury, it is the characters who are not seen to participate in the community and uphold their duties as a member of the small society that are invariably punished or looked down upon by the author: for Austen, participation and preservation of the fabric of society is of the utmost importance. With status comes responsibility, but there are more important things than appearance or artificial measures of merit. Austen may believe in a hierarchical society but such an arrangement is shown to rely on the quality of people (humility, wisdom, etc.) more than class distinctions (money, high-birth, etc.). The novel also addresses issues around the potential for female fulfilment in a society structured around wealth and status, and where women were often seen simply as the property of their husbands or fathers. There is an interesting discussion on the social construction of ideas of womanhood too.

Emma herself is an excellent character: opinionated, meddlesome if well-intentioned, and with a mind that subtly develops throughout the plot (a change which Austen’s prose reflects by small, nuanced shifts in tone as events unfold). She is one of Austen’s most complex characters and most satisfying reads for the arc and depth of her personal story: her psychological depth has been pointed to as a precursor for the psychological realism of George Eliot, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf amongst others. Emma’s own literary heritage can certainly be seen in her assuming a role similar to Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in overseeing the course of true love, but a more interesting literary comparison is to be found in Austen’s own canon, for Emma is, in some ways, a mirror to Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. Wealthy and living in her own mansion she is not in need of a partner and has been raised to think rather a good deal of herself and less of others. Like Darcy, she is forced to undergo an educative process that allows her to find eventual happiness, and throughout the text there are various examples of her assuming the traditionally male role. This offers an opportunity to test readers’ reaction to similar behaviours when they are assumed by a male character or a female. Clearly, Emma is far more than a parody of Darcy, but it is an interesting side note to her character.

Published in 1815, Emma was written predominantly in the previous year (but finished as late as March 1815) in a period after Austen had seen success and while she was at the peak of her powers. A more mature novelist, Austen married the expectations of her growing readership (the book is, famously, dedicated to the Prince Regent who was a fan) with her own literary sensibilities to produce a novel that displays some of her finest talents as a novelist. Here she has mastered free indirect speech, which is so heavily associated with her writing, and developed a cast of characters that work excellently for her purpose. The novel, too, is wholly English in its setting, concerns, and humour – provincial yet worldly, amused and amusing, sparkling yet with a hint of pathos. It is Austen’s most complete and well-worked novel.

Really enjoyed this. There are times when I want to shake Austen out of her beautifully controlled writing and get to something more raw but Emma is the most perfect riposte to those sentiments, and probably Austen at her best.

Useful Links
Reviews of Emma on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Emma on Amazon (US)
TV Adaptation of Emma on Amazon (UK)
TV Adaptation of Emma on Amazon (US)

You Might Also Enjoy...

Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park (1814) is perhaps the least popular of Jane Austen’s novels, at the very least it is the novel that has caused critics and readers the most problems. Central to these difficulties is Fanny Price, the rather frail and moralistic heroine ... [Read More]
Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility (1811) is Jane Austen’s first published novel, and is typical of her satires of social convention, love, marriage, and propriety. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are sisters, but very different. Elinor, the elder of the two, is ... [Read More]
Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey (1817), written originally in the late-eighteenth century, was published posthumously with Persuasion after Jane Austen’s death. Catherine Morland, just seventeen at the novel’s open, stays in Bath for the season with ... [Read More]

Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald book cover
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a generation defining novel that has come to represent the finery and despair of Jazz Age America and its wealthy elite. The narrator, Nick Carraway, having returned from the war becomes restless in his native Midwest and decides to follow the money, dropping ideas of becoming a writer and heading East to sell bonds. Taking a small house in West Egg, Nick soon finds himself dining with his second cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband Tom. The pair are inordinately wealthy but, Nick, discovers, not entirely happy. Tom, it transpires, is having an affair with a poor, married woman. It’s a rude awakening to the moneyed world for Nick but it is not until he meets his aloof neighbor, Jay Gatsby, that Nick is fully initiated into the world of decadent abandon. Invited to one of Gatsby’s grand parties, Nick finds that his neighbour puts on one hell of a show and that half of the city appears to decamp to his mansion every weekend for illicit fun. The peculiar thing is that no one seems to know much of Gatsby. He is an Oxford man, they say, and there is some talk of shady dealings having brought his wealth, or perhaps it was an inheritance – there are even those who say he killed a man, or was a German spy during the war. Nick’s head is sent into a spin by all this, but when he comes across Gatsby he is immediately captivated and the two become friends. Drawn into the lives of the wealthy, Nick attends party after party, enjoying the wildest pleasures. Along the way, he discovers that Gatsby knew Daisy once, that they had been in love before Gatsby had amassed his fortune. Tom Buchanan’s money might have won out back then but Gatsby is convinced he can recapture a past love and win Daisy back. It is a sweetly sentimental goal amongst all the hedonism but one that must cause a fracturing of the decadent complacency in which so many of the characters live.

Encompassing themes of lost hope, the corruption of innocence by money, and the impossibility of recapturing the past, The Great Gatsby incorporates so many of the concerns not only of Fitzgerald as an author but of America as a nation. Tremendously glamourous though the roaring twenties were, they represented the end of a golden age in the history of America. Like Melville, Whitman, and Thoreau before him, Fitzgerald wanted to capture, in fiction, something of the America that surrounded him, this place that had become overrun by corruption of spirit and pure materialism. Unlike those authors who constructed the literary conception of America, Fitzgerald was able to look back to a history of his nation and trace the roots of the post-war excess that represented a severe perversion of the much eulogised American Dream. In Gatsby, he found an ideal character to represent America and its shifting values.

In a cast of characters that are all quintessentially American, Jay Gatsby shines more brightly than any of those around him as the embodiment of the American Dream in a number of ways. A self-made man who dragged himself to the very top of the New Money world, he is emblematic of both the ambition and the disillusionment of 1920s America – an ironic version of an Horatio Alger-type – character. In his blind hope of recapturing the past by rekindling his love affair with Daisy, however, Gatsby elevates himself above the self-absorbed masses around him and upholds a warped version of the American Dream through a kind of naïve idealism, which sees the re-possession of Daisy as the ultimate goal that will signal the success of his quest. He carries nineteenth century romanticism with him into a twentieth century much changed by art and science and ends up caught between two impulses, modernity and sentimentalism – it is a common theme throughout the book where new competes against old, idea against idea.

Like Gatsby, the desire of America as a nation to look back and recapture an idealised past is both terribly dangerous and a sign of the wild, hopeful human spirit that can blot out past bitterness and look always on towards a goal, not constrained by good sense. It is in such romantic optimism that the exceptional moments of life are crafted. Nick captures this perpetual but flawed optimism in one of the many marine metaphors in the novel when he writes: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." In this sentence, the tragedy of Gatsby and of all humanity is captured quite perfectly. For, it is all too easy to allow the sparkling moments of the past to become what we yearn for in our future, trapped in a cycle of trying to recapture a memory that is likely illusory; an idealised past. Gatsby’s sentimentalism will not allow him to see Daisy for what she is, and so he is pulled into the shallowness of her existence in the hope of winning her heart. Fitzgerald captures beautifully the tragedy in chasing an unworthy dream, attempting to transport feelings from one time to another.

Amid all the glamour, money is, inevitably, important in the novel. Gatsby equates money to success, but its application is more nuanced than this. Daisy, born into money, understands this better than Gatsby. This difference in their appreciation of the money world is symptomatic of the constant dialectic between new and old money, the morals of East and West. That Gatsby’s house in West Egg is separated from the Buchanan’s by an expanse of water is symbolic of this divide – a divide that no amount of assumed affectation on Gatsby’s part, as he apes the stereotype of the moneyed gentleman, can bridge. For Gatsby remains a simple boy from the Midwest whose laughable old boy routine barely hides his racketeering past. However, the simple, perhaps sentimental, moral heart that both Nick and Gatsby share sets them apart from the moneyed class represented by Tom and Daisy. These wealthy, thoughtless characters flit about, playing with people’s emotions and able to retreat back into their wealth and status unmarked by their experiences. As Nick observes, "they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and vast carelessness."

Beneath all the money and glamour, Gatsby is really just a simple boy from the Midwest – like Nick Carraway – and it is his desire to reclaim Daisy that shapes his identity. Indeed, most of the characters are seeking an identity for themselves, and this leaves the reader with numerous questions in a novel that blurs the line between reality and illusion in so many ways: Is Gatsby an old sentimentalist or an unscrupulous profiteer, is Daisy toying with his feelings or does she retain some of the connection past, and can Nick be trusted to relay any of the story with impartiality or is his so enamoured with Gatsby that he is his blind advocate? For Fitzgerald it is almost immaterial – characters, like nations, are the history they create for themselves. Gatsby is a man without history, a freeform personage who rewrites his personal story for every new person he meets. This self-invention creates a lovely double-meaning to his being a self-made man, and is also a subtle nod to the creation of novels where a world is created afresh for each new reader.

Whether one reads Nick as a reliable narrator or not, the novel is brilliantly structured by Fitzgerald as a frame tale similar in form to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, here Nick narrating Gatsby’s story. Sitting both outside the story and within it, Nick balances Gatsby’s extravagance and offers the reader a route into the life of overwhelming opulence that so many of the characters enjoy. More importantly, through his steady and compassionate observation, Nick sees the humanity beneath the decadence, the romanticism that lies at the heart of Gatsby’s wish to reclaim an old love. Without Nick, Gatsby is but a delusional, backward-looking crank. In this way, Nick maintains the hopefulness at the centre of the novel, the unfailing optimism of the American Dream that allows anyone to believe that, with hope, anything is possible. “Reserving judgements,” Nick says, “is a matter of infinite hope.” In these words, the crux of The Great Gatsby’s romanticism lies.

On a structural level the novel is controlled wonderfully, but on the sentence level, too, the prose is remarkably beautiful in places, and there is exquisite symbolism – big and small – that sticks in the mind. Probably the most atmospheric symbol in the novel is the green light that shines out across the water that divides East and West Egg, and Gatsby from Daisy. It is a symbol of the guiding light that drives Gatsby in his pursuit of Daisy – dim and distant it shines out, promising a more complete future. But the green of the light is tied to wealth and envy too. The image of Gatsby looking out across the water, towards Daisy’s home, bathed in green light, captures the melancholic beauty at the heart of the novel.

Possibly the most famous symbol of the novel are the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. Plastered across a billboard, an advertisement bearing the eyes of Eckleburg – a wealthy oculist – looks out across the ash heaps where so many of the city’s poor live or work. A nod to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, this barren landscape is symbolic of the desolate state of the American Dream and Eckleburg’s eyes survey this new wasteland, emphasising the blindness of so many of the characters but also suggesting that God has been replaced by man, and more specifically mass marketing.

The new consumer society provides fertile ground for metaphor too and the camera is used as a means of mediating human experience, suggesting that reality and memory is skewed and often idealised, and that people are transformed from flesh and blood to subject. The strongest technological motif though is the automobile. A recurring theme of The Great Gatsby, automobiles are a signal of mobility and wealth, and of the manufacturing heritage that helped forge America’s economic might. Yet automobiles symbolise just another trapping of wealth in the novel, there is no depth of appreciation for them as machines, merely as symbols of affluence and a literary tool that helps expose the various drivers’ true nature (so often careless and unthinking).

For all that it is smart, The Great Gatsby is still a very approachable novel – one of the keys to its on-going popularity no doubt. Interestingly, the novel didn’t gain a wide readership until after Fitzgerald’s death but since then it has become firmly established as an American classic. It is some of Fitzgerald’s finest work and captures a time and a theme that is crucial to the cultural history of America and yet it does not labour under the effort. Like one of Gatsby’s parties, it sparkles with an effervescent charm that conceals so much that lies beneath the surface.

I'm not saying anything extraordinary by agreeing with the long-held consensus that this is a sparklingly beautiful book - it is what popular fiction should to aspire to be: readable yet thoughtful, complex yet simple.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of The Great Gatsby on Amazon (US)

Interview: James Rice

James Rice, author of Alice and the Fly
James Rice is a first-time novelist whose debut novel, Alice and the Fly, was released this year having won (for the first chapter) the Writing On The Wall festival’s Pulp Idol competition. James has written since he was a teenager and also has a strong interest in music. Having studied Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores, he now works part-time as a bookseller while working on his writing.

Alice and the Fly is James's first novel. Already being compared to The Shock of the Fall, it follows an isolated teenage boy as he struggles with mental illness while trying to win the heart of a girl and facing all the normal challenges of adolescence. The idea having come to James as a teenager, the story’s form was refined over the years until it was picked up by Hodder & Stoughton.

You can read my review here: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Your central character, Greg, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and contends with a phobia throughout the story – what made you want to write about a character with mental health problems?

I wanted to write from the POV of someone with a very distinct way of viewing the world. His phobia and his hallucinations are a big part of who he is – they were my starting point in terms of his character. Also the stigma that comes with mental illness sets him up as an outcast. There’s a lot of prejudice and I wanted to try subvert that. Greg’s society sees him as this dark menace – they’re all just waiting for him to do something awful. And he doesn’t help himself; he lives up to a lot of their stereotypes (unintentionally). But, because we see his motives, we know the real Greg – the harmless, romantic Greg. We know that he’s a product of his situation, that it’s not his fault.

How much would you say Greg is a typical teenage boy with typical concerns, and how much is his life shaped by his mental illness?

His concerns are universal. He just wants to find someone who accepts him for who he is – which is what we all want, right? He fixates on his phobia, which causes his isolation – but his isolation makes him fixate on his phobia. It’s a horrible cycle.

What would you say to anyone who is concerned about the portrayal of mentally ill people as potentially dangerous?

That it’s a completely understandable concern. But that’s not what I’m doing. Greg’s story is a self-fulfilling prophecy – it’s people’s expectations that force him towards the incident that occurs in the final chapters. (I won’t say any more to avoid spoilers.) Also, the world around Greg is much more violent and corrupt than he is. I’m aware Greg behaves oddly throughout the book and that his actions can seem… uncomfortable, but that’s the point. People are free to make their own judgements (and will, I’m sure).

Most people around Greg are so wrapped up in their own lives that they fail to connect with him on any meaningful level – how much did you want the novel to be about Greg’s story, and how much is it about the world around him?

We’re all wrapped up in ourselves all the time. That’s how we live. We are such a selfish species. We don’t like to admit it, but we are.

The first draft had a lot more about Greg’s family and classmates, but I cut a lot of it to focus on Greg and Alice. I was revelling in his view of the world too much, when I needed to concentrate on the main plot. But hopefully there’s enough left to give a taste of what was lost.

The language of repression, obsession, and Metaphorical Phantoms could just as easily be hurled at many of the characters not labelled as mentally ill in the story – would it be fair to say labels sometimes hide the truth of reality, that perhaps normality is a shield that deflects attention away from many of the characters and towards the more easy targets in the novel, like Greg?

Yes, exactly. Well put. It’s Greg’s label that sets him apart as an outcast. I think any kind of labelling is just bad for the world in general. (Except maybe on like, tinned goods.)

On this topic: I think mental illness is this obvious theme that everyone picks up on because it’s such a discussable subject – but I don’t think it defines Greg, or the novel. This is not a book about what it’s like to live day-to-day with schizophrenia (I’d recommend The Shock of the Fall if this is what you’re looking for [though chances are you’ve already read it]). It’s a story about what it’s like to be an outcast, what it’s like to be a teenager, what it’s like to be in love. I don’t want to focus on the themes of mental illness too much.

The landscape of the novel is almost dystopic and is undoubtedly bleak, from the social conditions of many of the characters to the internal struggles that they face. Is there room for hope in Alice and the Fly’s world?

I hope so. It’s bleak, yes, but so’s life. And just like life, there’s love in the novel, if you look hard enough for it. You have to hold on to that.

Parenting in the novel is pretty roundly poor – we know from the dedication that this in no way reflects your upbringing, so what led you to examine parental duties in this way, and should the reader assume that when Greg’s dad claims that ‘someone is always to blame’ it is an indictment of not just parents but the wider society when children (and others) are not cared for?

And Sarah says the blame lies with ‘all of us’. I agree; everyone lets Greg down. Even Miss Hayes, who is trying her best to do the opposite. In a lot of ways Greg is the least to blame – he just wants to be with Alice.

In terms of examining parental duties – you’re right, Greg’s parents are pretty awful. And I do hope readers take note of that dedication because people tend to assume debut novels are largely autobiographical, and my parents are lovely. Greg’s mum is one of my favourite characters though because she is an obscene exaggeration of all those middle class sensibilities and I thought it would be interesting to see how she dealt with Greg (not very well, it seems).

Inevitably, Alice and the Fly is going to be compared the The Shock of the Fall and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. You’re probably sick of reading comparisons in reviews already (good company though those books are), so give us some better comparisons – which books did you think of while you were working on Alice and the Fly?

They’re the recurring comparisons, yes. And it’s understandable, with them both being so big right now. I didn’t read Curious Incident… until very late on in the writing of Alice… (after being told I should by a lot of people) and The Shock of the Fall wasn’t published until after I’d handed in the manuscript, so it’s impossible to credit that as an influence (though this doesn’t stop the press from doing so).

The main influence was my own teenage years (I came up with the general concept in school). Once I started writing Alice… I read a lot of other novels with teen narrators. I’d single out Howard Buten’s When I was Five I Killed Myself as an influence. Richard Milward’s Apples and Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine too, as they’re the books I think of when I think back to the beginning of the writing process.

A word on the cover of the hardback edition of Alice and the Fly – it is gorgeous. Who’s the designer?

Yeah, Hodder did a great job. I would have chosen a terrible, glum cover if they left it up to me, and nobody would have ever bought a copy. The illustration is by Yan Qin Weng –

Alice and the Fly exists in a space between YA and Adult fiction, I would say. Where would you pitch it, or what market were you thinking of when writing it?

I was writing it for me, really, so wasn’t thinking too much about marketing. But you’re right, it could be either. Although I sort of believe YA is a strange label to put on a book; once you’re a teenager you’re reading adult books anyway, and half the people who read YA are adults. I’d class Alice as adult, but I don’t mind when people refer to it as YA.

You’re a bookseller at the moment – it must be fantastic to be surrounded by books every day, but how do you ever find time to write?

I don’t really write enough. I try. I only work part time (usually) so I find days or odd hours to write. Alice took me about three years but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and made a mess of the whole process. I’m a better writer now, I think.

Do you think working as a bookseller has improved your writing, or helped you along the way to publication?

It hasn’t helped me get published, but it’s helped me be a better writer in that it’s helped me be a better reader. To be a good writer you have to read a lot. Working in a bookshop you tend to buy at least one book per shift.

You’ve done both an undergraduate and postgraduate degree in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores – it’s a subject that has had some high-profile critics (Hanif Kureishi wrting in the Guardian, for example) but how do you feel the courses helped your writing?

I understand the criticism on one level, because there are fundamental parts to being a writer you can’t teach. But the discipline and the techniques and even just basic stuff like formatting is all stuff people need to learn. I owe a lot to the courses, particularly the MA. I know I wouldn’t have written the book without the help of my peers and the routine of regular deadlines. Before you’re published it’s hard to get anyone to take you seriously as a writer and having an MA group is your one place you can feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. I think that’s important.

Music seems to be a big part of your life – how does this affect your writing?

It distracts me quite a lot. I spend days sat round writing songs instead of working on my novel. Sometimes I need the distraction though. Also, Alice started as a concept album – which is a little factoid I always enjoy telling people. It’s an amusing image, I think – a 16 year old me, sat in my bedroom, Pink Floyd T-shirt, hair down to my ass, recording 8-minute long songs on my laptop using an Encore guitar and a Casio keyboard. It works better as a book.

What are you working on at the moment?

My second novel. It’s essentially two friends walking and thinking and talking for two hundred or so pages. It’s set in Wales. It’s better than I make it sound (I hope).

Which authors / books do you enjoy reading?

Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, A.M. Homes, Hubert Selby Jnr, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Don Delillo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Lydia Davis, Deborah Kay Davies, Niall Griffiths… etc. I’ll read anything. I’m a sucker for a list. Like I’ll find a list online of '20 Best Books about Farming Set in Rural Wales’ and I’ll try to work my way through. But I’ll never make it because then I’ll see a list of '50 Best Debut Novels about Animals’ or something. The cycle never ends.

Favourite word, and why?

Right now? ‘Bed’. Because it’s late.

If you'd like to find out more about James Rice and his work, you can follow him on Twitter. Alice and the Fly is available now, in both hardback and e-formats.

Useful Links
Alice and the Fly on Amazon (UK)
Alice and the Fly on Amazon (US)
James Rice on Twitter

You Might Also Enjoy...

Review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice
Alice and the Fly (2015) by James Rice is a novel of isolation and obsessions, love and families. Greg is a loner, a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and with a crippling phobia of spiders, he bounces from a loveless home life ... [Read More]
Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon is, ostensibly, a murder mystery. Things are not quite that formulaic, however. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone – who has Autism – narrates the story, which is set in motion ... [Read More]