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Review: The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 by Martin Amis

THe Second Plane by Martin Amis book cover
The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 (2008) is a collection of essays and short stories by Martin Amis, which attempt to make sense of the post-9/11 world, from wars to Islamism. One of the most prominent novelists writing today, Amis reflects on September 11th through the lens of literature, suggesting that terrorism, or ‘horrorism’ as he prefers it at times, has increased the quota of boredom in the world, that extremist religion lacks not only rationality but imagination. Presented chronologically, each piece in this collection charts Amis’s personal attempt to assimilate the most startling event of our time. It’s not always pretty, but it is straight.

Most known as a satiric novelist, writing ‘straight’ may not be Amis’s natural style (indeed, there is plenty of biting humour here, even in the straightest of essays) but he has approached the ‘big’ topics before – the holocaust, nuclear weapons – so it is hardly a surprise that in the decade following September 11th, Amis’s preoccupation was with that world-altering event.

He addresses early on the notion of the second plane, noting it as the lesion in history that marked the start of the post-9/11 world: “That was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her. ... That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”

There is something startlingly aesthetic about the image of the twin towers on September 11th, 2001, just as there is about the giant mushroom cloud that ushered in the age of atomic anxiety. In Einstein’s Monsters, Amis grappled with the nuclear age, here he takes on the post-9/11 world, but in both cases, words are barely a match for the startling, scarring images that preceded them. As Amis asserts, “after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 … all writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.”

For Amis, this creative blockage was short-lived, and he had soon turned to writing about the changed world, as he saw it. His argument for his own ability to write on the topic of 9/11 is not his knowledge of geopolitics, but of masculinity. Whether any justification was needed is doubtful – whether the line about masculinity would suffice if one was required is more doubtful still. But one does not read Amis for political insight, one reads him for style, for touching on the human, and, if for any sort of insight, then for artistic insight.

It’s no surprise that when it comes to the political, much of Amis’s focus falls on religion. At times, the line between Islamism – the extremist offshoot – and Islam becomes blurred, perhaps as it often has done in life and the media. Predominantly though, Amis is concerned with the violent end of the spectrum; the most imminent threat. His self-proclaimed agnosticism (which most would class as atheism) at its core colours Amis’s perception of much, and this in itself helps to confuse the line between Islam and Islamism. To clarify Amis’s position, he writes this on the Western tolerance of religion:

"Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses."

What is clear for Amis is that reason is to be favoured over religiosity (the antithesis of religion is not, he claims, atheism, but independence of mind), and that for him the two do not mix in any significant way (apparently, nor do art and religiosity, incidentally). The narrative thread does develop into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ paradigm in many ways, with Amis seeming to conclude that acts like 9/11 are outside of the rational, that seeking motive or moral equivalence is futile (although to be clear, Amis is as sneering of Bush’s ‘faith’ as he is of anyone else’s, and acknowledges that the appeal of Islamism is not faith but violence and a definite idea in a world of relative truths). Whether readers will find this acceptable or not, may depend on their own position to atheism / religion.

The collection’s subtitle (September 11, 2001-2007) hints at the fact that the impact of September 11th is not contained within the events of 2001, but is destined to spill over many years, as the consequences of this most startling event are felt. Amis himself identifies the events of 2003 – the invasion of Iraq – as the lasting consequence of the attacks of 2001: "We are arriving at an axiom in long-term thinking about international terrorism: the real danger lies, not in what it inflicts, but in what it provokes. Thus by far the gravest consequence of September 11, to date, is Iraq."

The two short stories in the collection – one narrated by the body double of a Saddam Hussein-type dictator, the other by Muhammad Atta (hijacker and pilot of the first plane) on his final day – feel a little limp. There is a dark humour in them, but no great insight into either the humanity (or otherwise, if one prefers) of the characters or the larger issues in which they are caught up. The essays are more robust – with more to say about the response to 9/11. Amis is on stronger ground when talking not about politics but about the literary and human response. Particularly good are his thoughts on the deadening effects of terrorism, and, by extension, religion. For Amis, creativity and vitality (embodied perfectly, for him, by Joyce’s Ulysses) are what he fights for – others are placed far better to deal with the political or the military responses, here language and the creative spirit are the things.

In a large way, the disjointed patchwork of responses that the essays and stories represent as a whole is the best representation of the human response to startling terror. Writing only days after the attacks, in the collection’s first piece, Amis is clear on what the response will be, but firm in his opinion that foreign lands "should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE USA" – a remarkably humanitarian response. From this starting point, Amis’s thoughts twist and turn back on themselves, wrestling with the almost unconquerable problem of assimilating this new ‘horrorism’. It’s a process many readers will recognise in themselves, and in the world in general.

On its publication, The Second Plane was criticised in much of the press for tipping into Islamophobia, as was Amis himself. One suspects that much of this view was formed by a string of rather ill-advised remarks Amis made in interviews, rather than what is contained within the pages of this collection. Amis represents a very human response; that he is prepared to talk on a perpetually difficult issue with real reflectiveness is to his credit. Is he always right? Certainly not – some of what he says is reductive, simplistic, or plain wrong (much is also right, clear-eyed, and prescient) – but quashing the freedom to publicly attempt to assimilate world events like 9/11 is not the answer either. The Second Plane is far more thoughtful than a lot of the press around it would suggest, and, while there’s still plenty to argue about within it, the arguments are reasonable and worth having.

As with Einstein's Monsters, words seem such fragile things compared to the topic they approach. Amis's developing thoughts on the post-9/11 world are, however, a fascinating insight into someone attempting to assimilate the horrific.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Second Plane on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Second Plane on Amazon (US)

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Review: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
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Review: Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov

Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov book cover
Transparent Things (1972) is one of Vladimir Nabokov’s final novels, and a slim volume that covers many of the author’s preoccupations in literature and beyond. Hugh Person, a somnambulant editor, is the novel’s protagonist, whose life is narrated by an ethereal presence – the ghost of a novelist known only as R. – who haunts Person as an author haunts his characters. Composed of 26 short chapters, the novel follows Person as he visits Switzerland where, on a previous visit, his father died unexpectedly, and where, on a separate occasion still, he met R. through whom he met his wife, Armande. His present trip is full of nostalgia, but as Person tries to break temporal boundaries to experiences past by closing spatial ones, the narrator exposes the thinness of reality in the present. Armande is the spark that ignites Person’s mundane life, and which pushes him beyond his comfortable existence. Out of his depth, but rooted firmly in time, unexceptional circumstances lead to exceptional actions for Hugh Person as he makes his way towards a state of ‘being’.

Transparent Things tackles some big issues: time and memory, the individual and isolation, consciousness and death, transparency and opaqueness. The frailty of human memory, with all its blind flaws, is mixed irresistibly with the sheer volatility of meaning in language, which points back to the writing of Joyce, amongst others. Person’s life folds back on itself as he attempts to re-experience his past, no longer covering new ground but trapped in his perpetual attempt to re-capture past experience. This failure to exist in the present is certainly linked with Nabokov’s criticisms of the psychiatric method, which too, focuses on a life past rather than a life present.

For Nabokov, all things are transparent, with a history that stretches out beyond the physical form in which they exist in the present, and a number of potential futures. Nabokov plays with associations, taking objects and forcing the reader to re-examine them, to question the reality in which they exist. It takes an enquiring mind to acknowledge the thinness of reality and explore the true state of things, but a more powerful mind to accept the refraction of history through the transparent things all around, while continuing to exist in the present. Person’s ache at the passing of time and the lost past, which cannot be recaptured, is symptomatic of the chronophobia present in much of Nabokov’s writing, and the notion of being able to retain the past in the present – as the narrator does – is clearly an appealing thought to anyone who mourns the passing of time.

Death – the ultimate lesion in time of any existence – abounds in the novel, but does not equate to the extinguishing of a life or a character here, but rather to the ascension to a higher level of consciousness, one equivalent to the ghostly narrator who looks down on, and beyond, creation. The narrator warns Person against the quest to re-experience his past and, in comparison to the life of the protagonist, the narratorial voice is full of life and art. An irony, perhaps, given the narrator’s lack of physical form.

If the present and all the objects that we experience in it are, ultimately, transparent: a past, even a future, stretching out in the fourth dimension, then the present is but a grain of sand on the beach of experience. The fragmented narrative, which covers flashbulb memories from Person’s life – some big, some small – represent this, and are vividly realised by Nabokov. They’re snatches of a life more mundane than extraordinary, and the disjointed way in which they are relayed can be disorienting, the novel’s focus shifting and re-focusing frequently. The minute detail of each short chapter can be beautiful, but as a whole the text can be difficult to grapple with.

The prose is efficient, not verbose, but this is far from a simple read. One has to be able to pull together the strands that Nabokov weaves throughout the text, separated but entirely interdependent, and even the best-read readers will struggle to discern all of the author’s motives and references. The copious allusions – both inter- and intra- textual – are overwhelming, and one cannot hope to identify them all in a single reading. There is a sense throughout that Nabokov is writing at a register that does not lend itself to interpretation. Indeed, much of Transparent Things feels like an in-joke with an intended audience of one.

The internal allusions, the text folding back on itself, reflect Person’s life, in which he is constantly preoccupied by his own history. It’s a clever stylistic way of expressing the solipsism of life, which affects all people. There is a lot of mirroring in the novel too, although mirrored passages are often refractions of previous ones; not identical, but blurred versions of the same reality.

The name Person – “personne” in French, which translates as both “nobody” and “anybody” – is significant in that it is only through the act of creation on the author’s part that a character gains shape, and it’s only in the mind of the reader that this reality is sustained. Without R., Person is lifeless (and without Nabokov, R. – the author’s fictionalised form – is too). It is not until R. as narrator begins narrating the protagonist’s life that he becomes Hugh Person, rather than the unnamed person that he as at the novel’s open. The name Hugh itself is also significant. Armande pronounces this “you”, broadening out the focus of the narrative. Equally, though, Hugh is the first syllable of Human; a half-formed thing.

Nabokov’s work is anything but transparent, and in trying to find the patterns that unpick the novel, the process of reading Transparent Things becomes itself a comment on reading; the need to uncover what at first appears opaque, and the willingness of readers to find patterns, as is the human need, where perhaps there are none. As with history (and memory), what is preferred is certainty; an absolute truth about a text (or event), pulled together from clues as the reader sees them. Transparent Things reminds one that as a form the novel tends towards a determinism, where everything means something, and little is arbitrary. The world, history, memory, and literature exist in the mind, the only place where events can be ordered to create reality digestible to the human consciousness. Art is just an extension of this process, a more concrete attempt to create a reality from facts, both real and imagined. Transparent Things deals with this internal process of creation (of art, memory, history, and reality). It is a strange and difficult book: a joke, a meditation, anything but transparent. Or at least, it is in my mind.

This is a funny little book - it feels, in a large part, that Nabokov is toying with critics, daring them to interpret it, to impose meaning where, perhaps, there is none. And yet there is a lot in here, a lot to digest and respond to on various levels (even if it's all an elaborate joke).

Useful Links
Reviews of Transparent Things on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Transparent Things on Amazon (US)

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Reading Plan: April 2014

Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography book cover
I’m really starting to get into this year. You know, I reckon 2014 is going to be alright; first draft of novel completed, a few reviews bunged up, went Folio Prize ceremony, summer on its way. Yeah, 2014; it’ll do. I’ve been on a bit of a reading spurt lately, which may explain my unusually chipper mood (claiming anything’ll ‘do’ counts as extravagant praise in my book). If reading a few novels in my spare time makes me feel this good, imagine how I’d feel if I did this shit full-time? Just read and wrote until I got hungry, or someone demanded social communication – it’d be a state beyond euphoric. Right, new life plan: stop doing ‘stuff’, start reading more.

Excellent, that’s sorted then: in the morning, I’ll quit work, uni, socialising, and anything else disposable. In the meantime, do mail me any loose change you find to see me through the next few months!

So, what to do with all this freedom? Well, the first literary quest is easy: Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, obviously. If that doesn’t say literary gold, I don’t know what does. Besides, I was given a copy for Christmas so it would be rude not to get on and read it sometime soon. Plus, SAF is looking more and more like my own Dad every day (or vice versa), so really it’s a duty to my surrogate pa that must be undertaken (Dad, if you ever read this, I apologise. Fear not, I do not see you as an overbearing, surly man with pink cheeks and cool blue eyes whose diction has descended to the point of near incomprehensibility. You do have the same haircut though, just saying.)

On a slightly more high-brow note, I’ve also been thinking about Vladimir Nabokov’s Transparent Things for a while. I’d very much like to write something about this, but it’s taking me a while to untangle my own thoughts. Hopefully I’ll have something before the end of the month.

I’ve also had to read Lord of the Flies for the book group I’m now attending, so I shall have to deal with that soon too. I’ve never read it before (shock horror!) and have rather mixed feelings about it so far (edging towards the critical, I fear).

My phone – source of all knowledge – also tells me I’m reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia at the moment. On brief reflection, I concur. Good work, iPhone. I seem to have read a fair bit of Orwell lately so I hope I’m not boring you all too much or, at the very least, you’re able to black out ventures in that direction like myself.

That’ll do for April, I think. What do you think; a fairly eclectic selection?

Notable Posts from March

Review: Burmese Days by George Orwell

Burmese Days by George Orwell book cover
Burmese Days (1934) is George Orwell’s first novel and draws heavily on his experiences as an Imperial policeman in Burma (now Myanmar) to criticise imperialism and the British Empire. John Flory is a timber merchant who has lived in Kyauktada, Burma for well over a decade. Despite spending his time in the European club with his fellow English ex-pats, he feels an affinity with the Burmese and their country. Far from being part of his jingoistic set, Flory sees the Empire as nothing more than a means to steal resources and maintain Britain’s financial superiority in the global marketplace. Forced by social pressure to remain silent on the matter, Flory is friendly with ‘natives’ but fails to defend them in front of his English peers. Dr Veraswami is one such example, and Flory badly lets his doctor friend down when tested, despite the Burman’s protestations that the English are a civilising force and whatever they say or do must be correct. When local villain and manipulator U Po Kyin decides to make trouble for both Flory and Veraswami in an attempt to gain entrance to the European club, troubles escalate and Kyauktada sees a small riot. Meanwhile, Flory sees the arrival, via Paris, of Elizabeth Lackersteen – an English woman – as his chance for companionship, despite their incompatible views and personalities. His desperate pursuit of Elizabeth is cut short, however, as his Burmese mistress, Ma Hla May brings trouble to his door, with the backing of U Po Kyin. Flory’s situation is dire, and he is left grasping for a way to consolidate the many influences and pressures in his life.

The time Orwell spent in Burma as part of the colonial police obviously gave him first-hand experience of the sort of life his characters here endure. Because of this Burmese Days is an insightful account of life in the colonies of the British Empire where days where long and lonely, the club was everything, and peace was maintained not by force of numbers but by shaky levels of bureaucracy and indoctrination to the idea of the Empire as a civilising force.

Orwell understood tyranny as well as any writer in the twentieth and here he demonstrates well the small-scale social pressures that hold larger regimes together. Flory’s inability to stand up for what is right shows the powerful pressure of a system against the isolated dissident, albeit half-hearted and flawed as Flory’s effort is. Indeed, the weakness of Flory’s own personality is as much a bar to his standing up to the pressures as anything else. But one feels the suffocating atmosphere of Flory’s voiceless situation and, by the novel’s end, it becomes clear that those who refuse the accepted truth of the majority are often discarded in one way or another.

At the centre of the novel is the club, a perfect small-scale example of the social pressures that keep dissenters in line. The stifling atmosphere of the club – where a small circle of ex-pats would meet almost nightly – acts as a refuge from the true Burma and a microcosm of isolation within the overall colonial isolation. It’s unsurprising that, cut off from the world, the club’s regular attendees become divorced from the civil tolerance of outsiders and frequently attack their Burmese neighbours in conversation. The club aims to represent a Britain that its patrons no longer know (and no longer exists), and, divorced from the reality of the Empire, the British in Kyauktada cling to an existence and line, which is already beyond saving. Living in isolation they have no idea that these are the dying days of Empire and most still cling on to the ideals of the British Empire, feeling them still to be within their grasp.

The British characters who inhabit the club are all narrow-minded and unpleasant – their moral ugliness juxtaposed with the beauty of Burma – in one way or another. This is slightly disappointing: To be given only jingoists or Flory as representations of the colonisers is rather limited in scope, for all they may represent attitudes that were rife amongst the British abroad. On the whole, the characters are more caricatures – flat and uninteresting – and one is forced to read them as purely satire if one is not to dismiss them entirely. Admittedly, Burmese Days oscillates between realism and satire, which makes this reading problematic, although not impossible. What one can say is that Flory is the only character with any psychological depth and, in fact, he is a fascinatingly complex and contradictory character – somewhat standing out from the menagerie of stereotypes which surround him.

As much as the colonial British are shown to be drunk, bigoted, and wholly unpleasant in varying degrees, very little is shown of the Burmese, certainly very little in a positive light. Dr. Veraswami is, perhaps, the only sympathetic Burmese character. He represents the Anglicised Indian, and is roundly despised because of it. Even Flory – the doctor’s only ally – fails to stand up for him. Indeed, the friendship between Veraswami and Flory is strangely pitched, with no real signs of affection or common ground. Perhaps they are simply two men isolated from their own communities, but the exposition that makes the friendship believable is entirely the reader’s own.

Nearly all of the characters are described with subtle physical abnormalities, positioning them as Grotesque satire in many cases; a reflection on the hidden grotesqueness of Imperialism that Orwell seeks to expose. Certainly he punctures the idea of the British as physically superior to the colonised peoples. Perhaps the most prescient of these abnormalities is the birthmark which Flory sports on his face – a visual sign of his difference. Whenever he attempts to protest or assert his difference, he becomes self-conscious of his mark, embarrassed and silenced before he has uttered a word.

In general, Flory is the antithesis of the colonial hero, weak and uncertain as he is. This lack of certainty or proud thrusting towards ‘justice’ runs throughout the novel and, again, satirises the colonial fiction that came before it. One feels Flory must represent a form of catharsis for Orwell, given the author’s own experiences in the colonies, and the personal experience elevates the novel above much of Orwell’s early fiction, and instils it with a sense of resonance and depth that he would not often capture in his early novels.

Orwell’s characters are often alienated from society and Flory is no different. Trapped amongst his vile compatriots and in a foreign land, his opinion is silenced and he is forced to exist, mute, in this oppressive atmosphere. His views are those held by a minority and the simple loneliness of having to keep one’s thoughts to oneself has clearly had a significant effect on him. That he falls so heavily and desperately for Elizabeth – a woman very different from himself – is indicative of this fact.

To talk, simply to talk! It sounds so little, and how much it is! When you have existed to the brink of middle age in bitter loneliness, among people to whom your true opinion on every subject on earth is blasphemy, the need to talk is the greatest of all needs.

Flory’s passive complicity in the imperialism that surrounds him (as well as his active profiteering from it) is poignant but troubling too. As much as Flory’s opinions seem reasonable, he never follows them through and in fact his acts are those of a man fuelled by prejudice and self-interest. Certainly, he is a long way from a sympathetic character, and is to blame for far more than failing to speak out. His treatment of Ma Hla May – who he treats as a disposable irritant having used her for his own purposes for years – is appalling, and his complicity in the world he silently detests leaves him in a morally ambiguous position. Indeed, by the novel’s end it is difficult to tell if Flory’s opinions are rooted in sound moral judgements, or spring from the isolation of his position, perhaps stemming, originally, from his birthmark, which set him apart from his peers before long before his opinions could. Irritatingly, the novel’s ending makes a victim of Flory; somewhat of an easy get-out for the author.

Outside of the largely flat characters, the pacing of the novel can prove problematic, with some parts of the plot racing by and others examined in more depth. Indeed, a fair amount of the action happens ‘off-stage’ and this does feel like a book written by a writer finding his way in fiction: some scenes work well while others fall flat, and one suspects that those which are more vivid are those for which Orwell drew most heavily on real-life experience. Overall, Burmese Days is a strange book. The anti-imperial message is clearly there and sounded loudly, but there is so much that clouds the message, either on the plot level, or in terms of the style of the writing. However, painful contradictions are one of the things that makes Orwell, and his fiction, enigmatic, and Burmese Days is as good an example of this as anything else he wrote.

As ever with Orwell, I'm finding some pretty big flaws with his fiction in terms of its artistic merit. Here too, the morality is muddled - possibly reflecting the absolute mess of morals in the colonies. A strange book, not one I really warmed to, but interesting.

Useful Links
Reviews of Burmese Days on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Burmese Days on Amazon (US)

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Review: An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel book cover
An Experiment in Love (1995) by Hilary Mantel is the story of one girl’s passage into womanhood. Carmel is an unexceptional girl from Lancashire, who finds herself studying Law at university in London in 1970, at a time of great social upheaval. Having attended an all-girl Catholic school as a child, Carmel is green to the world, but in London she is joined by two fellow classmates from home: Karina, a distant and difficult girl from a European family, and Julianne, an accomplished young lady who becomes Carmel’s roommate. Along with other girls – Clare, a devout Christian; Lynette, a wealthy European - all three navigate their way through the claustrophobic atmosphere of university halls, where their behaviour is under strict observation and their lives are controlled more than a newly liberated generation might care to have imagined. The sheen of expected freedom soon rubs thin as worries about friendships, relationships, money, and health begin to drag Carmel down. It’s a rough if quietly internalised induction into adult life for all the girls, and the few terms they spend together threaten to leave a permanent mark on their young lives.

There certainly seems to be snippets of autobiography here: like Carmel, Mantel studied Law in London starting in 1970, and came from a similar family background. While having little bearing on the story itself, this understanding of her characters’ lives allows Mantel to draw quite poignantly their existence, and to go about discussing friendships, both female-female and male-female, with deft flourishes. The descriptions of the girls’ lives as they balance their pasts with their futures, are excellent, the silent tensions that act upon them drawn out beautifully.

The narrative is split across three timeframes, between which Carmel’s narration flits: her time in university halls, and her past both in her state school and, later, the Catholic convent (for which it’s thought Mantel drew on Harrytown Convent School where she studied), which propels her on to university, having prepared her to compete, as a pseudo-man, in the world of men. Across each of the narratives, minute social mores press in on the girls, forcing them to compete with one another in an unspoken game where victories are generally small and competition is attritional. Away from their mothers - their instructive feminine influences - for the first time, the girls navigate their way through this world of issues - from boyfriends to religion, fashion to food - alone. The mother-daughter relationship is important here, and Carmel’s own mother has shaped her daughter’s childhood, urging her towards success with tough homework schedules and unforgiving moral standards, driving her forward into the world.

Indeed, it’s Carmel’s mother who pushes her daughter into a shaky friendship with Karina as a child; a friendship that will prove destructive. Karina is a difficult character: fiercely jealous, she glories in puncturing the happiness of others at every opportunity. The physical opposite of Carmel, Karina is plump and motherly even at the age of twelve, and her dark eyes hold knowledge long before Carmel’s. It’s a worldly rather than an academic knowledge and, although Karina is not pushed academically like Carmel, she understands the world of manipulation, and progresses through life on this merit. More than any other character, Karina’s motives are veiled from both Carmel and the reader, and this idea of the hidden interior – the unknowable – is a major theme and stylistic choice in An Experiment in Love.

Carmel’s move from her home in the North to the South for university is seen as an escape to a better life in a lot of ways – despite being shackled by Karina’s presence. There is certainly something on the leap from a working class background to perceived respectability here, and this social mobility is echoed in a few political references in the novel. That Carmel looks forward to a woman Premier is, in a lot of ways, ironic. When the landmark would come, via Thatcher, so too would reforms that seem antithetical to many of Carmel’s own feelings but, at the same time, somehow in line with the competitive, self-advancing way in which she has been raised by her mother.

The balance the young women have to strike between pleasure and education at university, the temptations that face them and the difficulty of delayed gratification is well drawn by Mantel. As Carmel gains more knowledge and more experience, she grows no happier, but rather sadder, more torn in a world of tensions that act upon her. The female body is a huge topic in the book: from the contrast between Karina’s and Carmel’s weight, to the body as a vessel for new life, and as one of the few things the girls can exert any significant control over. In many ways, this is a novel about the fight for control of the body. Carmel’s quietly developed anorexia is indicative of her position to the world, of choosing to consume only so much, before withdrawing, denying herself. Carmel’s hunger is also representative of her generation’s hunger for recognition, for success, even if these drives are imbibed from the previous generation. By the novel’s end, it feels as though the narrator has been telling one about more than her own struggle into womanhood, and has been speaking about her generation generally, as they grapple with, and often fail in, their new found freedom, and the responsibility they have in protecting and cherishing what they have inherited.

The plot itself is pretty simple, and, like Carmel herself, there’s little superfluous meat on the bones. It rolls along, much focus on the depth of the characters – their back stories – but always leaving something hidden from the reader, who is left to piece together the girls’ individual realities from what is offered in the text. It’s not until the high melodrama of the denouement that the gentle progress of the plot is splintered – as with Carmel’s anorexia, the magnitude of the sickness unfolding before the reader’s eyes isn’t fully realised until it’s too late, and things have spiralled out of control.

Mantel’s writing is vivid and her prose has a weight all of its own, not dramatically unique but beautifully pitched. Her descriptions are fantastic, her metaphors and similes sharp and meticulous. One has the sense of an author comfortable in her style, and able to write with a freedom that sets her apart from other, more formulaic writers. She faces the truth of human nature with resolute affection, and draws characters rooted in firm reality. This lack of sentimentality creates some fascinating characters, perhaps none more so than Karina. There is certainly more than a touch of the Uncanny about Karina, and the book in general. So much is left to the reader’s imagination; so much lurks in the recesses of the mind, for both Carmel and the reader.

The title is perhaps a play on Stephen Crane’s male-narrated short story, An Experiment in Misery. Here love replaces misery, but this is somehow an irony. Love in this book is a tricky subject: there are many forms dealt with, but few are shown to be pure and positive. In a genre dominated by the male, this is an unusual and feminised bildungsroman of great sensitivity, but also firmness. Mantel’s wonderful writing, and the strangely disquieting world she creates, makes this a surprisingly resonant read.

This took a little while to settle with me. The quality of the writing was evident throughout, but the actual resonance of the story took a while to hit. Very clever on Mantel's part.

Useful Links
Reviews of An Experiment in Love on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of An Experiment in Love on Amazon (US)

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Review: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen book cover
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 calm and understands the necessity of mastering one’s emotions and navigating social situations politely, if not always honestly. Marianne is ruled by her emotions and cares little for social convention. Following the death of their father, the sisters, along with their mother, depend on the charity of others for their continuing survival. Moving from lodging to lodging, the women meet a range of carefully-observed characters, and both Elinor and Marianne find themselves falling for men whose paths cross theirs. For Elinor this is Edwards Ferrars, a respectable young man with money to his name, but who is not freely available. For Marianne, romance is no less easy: both the dashing John Willoughby, and the older, less vibrant Colonel Brandon, fall for the younger of the Dashwood sisters. Marriage is not a destination easily arrived at, and for both girls there is a lot to learn before they can achieve this end.

The novel’s key concern, as indicated by the title, is the conflict between sense and sensibility. Sense, represented by Elinor, refers to cool and sensible behaviour, to not allowing one’s emotions to rule one’s behaviour. With sense, propriety is everything. Sensibility, represented by Marianne, is the opposite: full of affect, she lives on her emotions, experiencing life without restraint. This reckless abandon leaves Marianne vulnerable, and by the novel’s close she has learnt that to survive one must find a balance between sense and sensibility. To a modern reader, Elinor can feel overly restrained, and Austen’s conclusions rather conservative, but, as with her writing, Austen favoured clear-sighted realism, always. However, this pragmatism has its limits: both Marianne and Elinor seek partners for companionship more than financial stability. While Austen plays with the idea of love, gently satirising Marianne’s naïve and idealised view of it, ultimately with Austen, love is always a better reason for marriage than money (better still is the combination of both).

Elinor’s insistence on good manners and propriety is important – they are a social lubricant, which allow characters to navigate, and interact with, a difficult world. It’s worth noting, however, that nearly all civilities are conducted between people of equal station. Austen does not talk about, or extend pleasantries, to those of the lower classes, and thus one is left with a rather limited idea of manners.

Besides the core dialectic between sense and sensibility, Austen uses the Dashwoods to discuss the condition of being an upper-class woman, particularly one without a fortune to her name. The Dashwoods are wholly reliant on others for their well-being, and, without the option of working for a living, Elinor’s and Marianne’s long-term financial stability is dependent on their marrying well. This leaves them in the hands of men at all times, and, as they find out to their detriment, this is a position which can be readily abused. Knowing the importance of marrying well, the young characters, not just the Dashwoods, consistently have pressure exerted upon them from the older generation, who seek to look out for their interests by promoting sound (financial) matches while fending off unsuitable suitors.

How characters deal with the money-world they find themselves in is of constant interest, and the favoured characters are those who do not place money at the centre of their worlds. Fanny Dashwood – wife of the Miss Dashwoods’ brother, John – is the perfect example of someone who thinks too much of money, and too little of others. It’s the intervention of Fanny that prevents John giving the Dashwoods a proper slice of their father’s wealth to look after themselves at the novel’s opening, which sets in motion their new life of dependence.

Austen understands and depicts perfectly the human emotion surrounding her topics of choice, and it’s this, more than the stories themselves, that give her novels an enduring quality. However, her writing is rarely limited simply to the interaction of her characters with each other and the world. With Sense and Sensibility, it seems Austen is gently satirising Romantic fiction, brilliantly lampooning scenes oft used in fiction of excess, and inverting their meaning. There is a wider discussion of art too: of the importance of discernment, and the tension, as with the titular struggle, between the need for structure and reason in art, and for the core sensory experience of creation. Only in the marriage of the two can truly brilliant art be created.

Simply, though, it is the Dashwood sisters’ struggles with the world – with men and mothers, money and manners – that grip the reader and make Sense and Sensibility readable to any generation. Inheritance law may have changed, conventions altered, but the battleground for young women remains much the same.

Originally written in the 1790s under the title 'Elinor and Marianne', the book took a long time to reach the reader as Sense and Sensibility. When it did, the world was a different place: the scars of revolution marked the psyche of all in Western Europe, regardless of their own involvement or otherwise in the upheaval. In this new world, Sense and Sensibility feels like a novel that falls back onto conservatism too readily. Certainly, a more radical interpretation is possible, but this requires replacing Elinor as the novel’s centre point, with Marianne. This is rather an appealing idea, as Marianne marries sense and sensibility almost satisfactorily by the novel’s end, but this displacement of the older sister would appear to run against Austen’s own want for her characters.

What one might say is that Austen believes firmly in the individuality of experience. Her characters all have rich private lives, which they conduct internally, but which few express outwardly. Elinor’s caution, her refusal to leap to conclusions on other’s behalf, seems the sensible response to a world of manners, where much is repressed and conversation is a dance around truths hidden from its participants. That said, one could equally argue that a world more open, as Marianne is, would be a world where conversations were not things to be carefully negotiated, but simply experienced. This is symptomatic of Austen’s conservatism: does one adapt to one’s surroundings in order to survive (as Elinor does), or does one demand that surroundings change to fit in with one’s worldview (as Marianne might)? That she appears to favour the former pushes Austen towards the conservative and away from the revolutionary. But Austen does seek a middle-ground: to curb Marianne’s rebellious nature without utterly extinguishing it. It’s a compromise between individual and societal need and, while imperfect, is an attempt at balance.

For all the wider themes, however, at its end, Sense and Sensibility is a novel about the happiness of women: both barriers, and routes, to it. The change in title from the manuscript’s conception to its publication, might point to the larger themeas discussed by the book, but it’s the simple human reality of Elinor and Marianne’s lives that mean readers are still picking up Sense and Sensibility today.

I've had a few false starts with this book, but finally managed to get right through it. I enjoyed it, but I have some reservations about the central message and where Austen falls on it.

Useful Links
Reviews of Sense and Sensibility on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Sense and Sensibility on Amazon (US)
TV Adaptation of Sense and Sensibility on Amazon (UK)
TV Adaptation of Sense and Sensibility on Amazon (US)
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Reading Plan: March 2014

Burmese Days by George Orwell book cover
I’m still feeling my way into the year, but with a few reviews under my belt things seem a little more settled than they did at the end of 2013. What probably helps is that I’ve realised I may be doing a little too much, and might need to re-focus a little. After thinking about it for a little bit, I pretty much decided that writing was the thing I couldn’t do without, and so, rather than letting other things trample over my writing time, I would have to put writing as my top priority. I’m tempted to say, “And so begins my ‘writing years’ ” but knowing me I’ll have changed my mind next month and be thinking about something completely different. Hopefully the new focus means I’ll be able to finish a decent draft of my first novel this year and get stuck into reviewing more regularly, which I’ve realised I miss quite a great deal.

So, enough boring waffle about my life, what about books? What’s the happening this month? Well, while I’m still clearing out time for writing things might be a bit slow, but my main read this month is going to be Orwell’s Burmese Days. I’ve been reading Orwell on and off recently, and this is one of his most talked about novels, so I think I’ll give it a whirl. Set in Burma, it deals with the British Empire, and what it was to be a dissenting voice in colonies, ostracised from an already isolated group.

I’ve also had to read Sense and Sensibility for my course, so I may well jot down some thoughts on that if time allows. I must admit, it was the third time I’d tried to read the book and I’m glad I had the spur of educational necessity to get me through it, because I enjoyed it more than I’d expected (i.e. it’s not just a load of people whining about stuff, as it turns out!) I’d actually like to fill the gaps in my Austen knowledge as the discussions around both Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility for my course were really interesting, so I’m feeling inspired to work through the novels I haven’t yet read.

What else? Well, I’m reading Nabokov’s Transparent Things at the moment, so I might write something about that, but it’s a strange little book, and it might take me a while to get my head around it. I may also be re-reading The Picture of Dorian Gray for my book club, and I’d be delighted at the opportunity to bang on to all of you about one of my favourite books.

I think that’s a fair summary of what I’ve got on my bedside table at the moment – doubtless other things will crop up, but hopefully I will get out at least a couple of reviews this month.

One final note, congratulations to Katherine Ivan, who won last month's competition to win a copy of the Library of Unrequited Love. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Notable Posts from February

Review: The Fall by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus book cover
The Fall (1956), La Chute in the original French, is Albert Camus’s last completed novel, and one of his most challenging. In the fog of Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence meets an unnamed stranger in a small bar and, falling into a solipsistic monologue, begins to tell the story of his own personal fall. Clamence claims that he was once, like the narratee, a magistrate in Paris, where he lived a fine and self-satisfied life, believing himself a model citizen. The illusion is broken when, walking by the Seine one night, he stands by as a woman flings herself from the river bank and to certain death. Her fall triggers Clamence’s own. Awakened to the reality of both his own, and the whole of humanity’s guilt, Clamence retreats from his settled life and chooses rather to spend his days recounting his story in the hope that others will be awakened as he has been, and in so being alleviate the burden he himself carries. Clamence takes to this misanthropic life with ease, declaring himself a “judge-penitent”, both condemned and condemning. Though he claims to seek clemency for himself and others, there is little hope in his words, and, as Clamence’s story unfolds, any power his words once held dwindles as the life force slips from them as it does from their orator.

Like all men, Clamence is preoccupied with his own (im)mortality and, as with Meursault (of The Outsider), judgement is Clamence’s route to freedom. As Camus writes in The Rebel, “To live is, in itself, a value judgement. To breathe is to judge.” Clamence, in his position as judge-penitent, embodies the human necessity to judge, and need to condemn. Throughout he looks down (both metaphorically and literally) on humanity and sneers at its delusions and failings. Implicit in his own need to judge, is a condemnation of those that do, from obvious targets like judges and religious leaders to every individual who exists passively in a world of murder. Clamence, once a well-respected lawyer, represented the respectable face of morality, but his own monologue quickly exposes the sharp gap between the illusion of morality, and of morality itself, crushing the idea of integrity almost entirely. But, in exploring what is necessary to live a virtuous life, the narrative offers hope that falsehood is not innate, but learned, and that there is a mode of existence – even if it is beyond the grasp of Clamence – which can be virtuous, in its own limited sense. Clamence may delight in condemning humanity with one fell swoop but his position as the outsider looking in makes him no different to any other man, each as happy to decry the fall of humanity as the next. As he would have it: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” It is brilliant and difficult satire by Camus.

Clamence, perhaps, represents some of the problems Camus pinpointed with some Absurdists, from whom he was feeling increasingly disaffected, the complacency and contradictions of Absurdism proving freshly problematic to him. Clamence is a man disconnected from the world, fallen into despair, and scornful of existence as he knows it. His fractured, nihilistic philosophy finds no meaning in life, and no truth or innocence to protect. By making Clamence duplicitous in his thoughts and actions, Camus demonstrates the relativity of values traditionally held as objective, and creates a world in which good cannot exist without evil. For Camus here, innocence is a false concept, but its absence does not, necessarily, assert the presence of its opposite, guilt, as we know it. Nevertheless, in a world where murder and suicide exist, existence is a choice, and this leaves all men as equally guilty/innocent – through action or inaction – and there is an absurdity in the equally guilty judging one another.

While acknowledging that isolation is the only way to begin to free oneself of the expectations of others and avoid Sartre’s Bad Faith, Clamence preaches slavery – the abdication of freedom – as the only way to be happy. It is one of his many duplicities. In a world of only relative morality, authority, Clamence seems to suggest, is the only root to objective truth. But this assertion is undercut by Clamence’s own attempt to elevate himself to the position of judge, which demonstrates the flaw in humanity judging humanity and, in a world without a transcendent deity, truth therefore also becomes a false concept.

For all that his solution is flawed, Clamence pinpoints much about society which is rotten, absurd, and complacent. Like Meursault, Clamence exposes the problem of indifference and anonymity in modern life, the aching gap between the human desire to find meaning in life and the complete inability to find it. As a character, Clamence epitomises the selfishness that stands between man and authentic experience, and true morality for community not just self. Clamence’s is not Camus’s own voice, but simply a reflection of modern man. His big failing is not in his diagnosis, but in choosing not to live in the uncomfortable place between good and evil, but to fall back onto absolutes, to position the world as an evil place. Absolutes are always to be rejected; for Camus, acknowledging the flaws in morality is not a cause to disregard morality altogether, it is facing the struggle that makes one moral. Before his fall, Clamence was a useful member of society, in his way. Following his fall, Clamence is overcome by the fear of all that he now sees before him. Like Adam following his fall, the rush of knowledge paralyses, and Clamence experience Kierkegaard’s Dread. By choosing to embrace a life of judgement, he becomes a fallen prophet.

Clearly, The Fall’s plot is secondary to the ideas that it represents, Camus making the effort not to create distraction while never being anything more than opaque in the presentation of his own thinking. Indeed, as with much of Camus’s writing, it is best read alongside other of his work. Here, reading the introduction to The Rebel – the non-fiction book that preceded The Fall – offers far greater clarity on the ideas that underpin The Fall, and make it work better as philosophical fiction. Reading The Fall alone, the reader is forced to untangle Clamence’s ambiguities to reach the crux of Camus’s position.

Clamence’s recounting is full of diversions, observations (some acute, some flawed), and witticisms (often unintended), bombarding the reader with so many ideas that it can be almost overwhelming. However, although seemingly a free-flowing soliloquy, the text is far more tightly controlled by Camus than that. Testament to this fact is the perfect centrality of the key moment of the text (the woman’s suicide), the smoothly developed metaphors, and the brilliantly realised intellectualisms. For all that it is a short novel, few words are wasted in The Fall, and it is a deceptively slow read if one is to fully appreciate it.

The reader takes the places of the narratee – the audience that Clamence craves – implicated in the story and the humanity Clamence condemns. By taking the place of the narratee, the reader is complicit in the conversation, unable to engage with the text without engaging with its subject matter. Clamence’s confession is impersonal – perhaps taking on a universality – bereft of emotion, and amounting to little more than the recounting of facts. It’s a confession fit for a world indifferent to emotion.

There are many brilliant metaphors throughout the text, and Camus plays with myths, consistently subverting their meaning. Jean-Baptiste Clamence is clearly a play on John the Baptist, who told of the final judgement. As John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness, Jean-Baptiste cries out to a generation who must come to terms with a world in which truth is absent, in which a Christ has not and will not come. The concentric canals of Amsterdam are linked to the circles of hell in Dante’s 'Inferno', and as fog surrounds the city – narrowing his vision to the immediate present, deferring consequences of and engagement with both – Clamence exists amidst the petty bourgeois in his own personal hell.

The Fall was originally intended to be part of Exile and the Kingdom (a selection of short stories) but grew into a short novel in its own right. Jean-Paul Sartre described The Fall as “perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood” of Camus’s novels. Certainly it is a tricky text, but however one reads it, the novel is undoubtedly bleak. The last completed novel before Camus’s untimely death, it feels like the work of a man still grasping to appreciate the moral position in a world scarred by war and division, but who is strengthening his grasp on the position, and readying himself to move on to not only considerations, but, perhaps, solutions too. What future conclusions – if any – Camus might have come to are impossible to predict, but The Fall brushes up against some essential truth and is undoubtedly one of Camus’s most complete, and complex novels.

A book that demands a lot of thought. Having spent a little while digesting it, I can't say I'm confident I have fully understood it. I do know, however, that it is brilliant.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Fall on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Fall on Amazon (US)

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Competition: Win a Copy of The Library of Unrequited Love

The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry book cover
Having just finished reading The Library of Unrequited Love (read my review), I've decided to get into the spirit of things and pass along my copy of the book, so someone else can enjoy this little gem. 

At less than 100 pages long, it's a quick but really good read, and I'd recommend it to anyone, even if you don't manage to win my copy of the book.

Speaking of which, I should clarify - the prize is the actual paperback that I've been carrying around for the past few days so it may not be in perfect condition (although I can't see a lot wrong with it from my librarian eyes), and I promise to shake any stray DNA off it before I pop it in the post to the lucky winner.

That's about all there is to say - enter below, and best of luck!

How to Enter

You can earn up to 10 entries into the competition using the widget below.

! Please note, this competition is open to everyone, 
no matter where you are in the world !
a Rafflecopter giveaway

The competition closes at midnight on 23rd February 2014 and the winner will be notified on the 24th February 2014.

~ Good luck ~

Review: The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry book cover
The Library of Unrequited Love (2013), La Code 400 in the original French, and translated to English by Siân Reynolds, is a small book about loneliness and libraries. Arriving early one morning, the Geography librarian of a public library is surprised to find an interloper locked in the basement where she works. After a mild chastising, she offers the stranger a cup of coffee and begins to chat to her silent narratee, long-repressed thoughts tumbling from her mouth. Single and a long-servant of the library, it’s a rare opportunity to voice her opinion and she does so gladly, covering many topics, and in so doing, reveals her frustrations, loves, hopes, and anxieties. Underappreciated, she disdains many of the other librarians and the people who steer the library away from her ideal, but she retains a grudging affection for the library users, motley crew that they are. One in particular flames her interest: a researcher named Martin, who visits weekly to read in her basement. Having barely exchanged a dozen words, her attraction is muted and always from afar, resigned, it seems, to remain unrequited.

Burned once by love, the librarian now finds solace in the books she keeps and her affections are reserved for reading and authors long past, refusing to expose her heart to anyone who has the power to hurt her:
[M]en, no, that's all over. Love, for me, is something I find in books. I read a lot, it's comforting. You're never alone if you live surrounded by books. They lift my spirit. The main thing is to be uplifted.
But, while she remains both fearful and desirous of human contact, through her often bitter laments, there is a well-reasoned love for libraries and for the people who use them, hidden beneath the often dismissive rhetoric she spouts. Indeed, the unrequited love of the title is not just for Martin but for all the odds and sods who she looks after – always without thanks – in her library.
“I’ve never got a word of thanks from Martin, my refugees, my little old men, my school dunces. Once they leave here, they forget about me. I’m stuck in my basement… And yet it all starts up again every day. I fall for it. The Homeric struggle. Every day, I go back into the arena.”
For, she loves culture and laments its fall within society, as well as the library’s ever-diminishing role. For her, the library is a means of opening culture to the masses, and gently helping them to elevate their own thinking and cultural awareness. But her observations are not limited to libraries and their users. Beneath the librarian’s bun, turns a mind sharp and analytical. A keen observer, she sees the smallest of human behaviours right up to the biggest of ideas, and how they all fit together. Indeed, her rambling narrative encompasses a diverse range of topics, including the Dewey Decimal system (and its flaws), snobbery (literary and otherwise), socialism, a library’s place in society, feminism, the French Revolution, and French Literature – and all before opening time!

But, for all the talking, the real topic of the monologue – hidden beneath every sentence – is loneliness. The librarian is far from the perfect advocate for reading, troubled as she is. Perhaps, one might reflect her own claim that to be a writer one must be in some way dysfunctional, back at readers. After all, to read is to choose wilfully to exclude the world, and transport oneself to a place of greater comfort. This loneliness – the deep, but unexceptional, sadness of the librarian’s life – is gently unfurled through the restrained prose, and one feels the isolation of a life spent quietly with books.

There is, however, scarcely a dull sentence in the book, and the librarian proves enlivening company for all the underlying pathos. The narratee – the only other character – is as much a stranger to the reader by the end of the book as they are at its opening pages, but the reader becomes the narratee themselves, listening and bending to the position of the librarian, whose story this truly is. Without chapters or paragraphs, the monologue is an incessant stream of consciousness, and runs smoothly, the narrator barely pausing for breath. It is frequently funny, often poignant, and there are innumerable passages which work as quotable snippets.

This is Sophie Divry’s debut, and it feels like an intimate and personal piece of writing, as many debuts do. The subtlety and simplicity of the novella is beautifully pitched. The Library of Unrequited Love will, perhaps, read best to a librarian who can more than sympathise with the narrator, but anyone who has spent their life amongst books will feel immediately in tune with the librarian’s voice, and more still those who feel the alienation of modern life.

Under 100 pages long, this is a book perfectly-pitched for the grumbling librarian in me. There's much more to it though, and would recommend it to any book lover as a refreshing and thoughtful read.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Library of Unrequited Love on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Library of Unrequited Love on Amazon (US)

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