Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas treats 2010

by Julia Kuttner


Room, by Emma Donoghue

Jack lives in room with Ma.  He sleeps in Wardrobe, plays with Paper Snake and eats food off Table.  He has to be very quiet at night when the beeps sound at Door;  it means that Old Nick will come to Ma.  Jack is supposed to be asleep and not meant to listen to any conversation between Old Nick and Ma but he knows that this man is someone to be afraid of, and that he once hurt Ma’s wrist so badly that it doesn’t work properly anymore.  But!  It is Jack’s 5th birthday today, and Ma has made him a cake, his very first one, just like ‘in the TV’;  yesterday he was only four, but today he is five, and anything can happen.  And does.  So begins Emma Donoghue’s gripping story of a young student kidnapped and held hostage for seven years, the birth of a son to her captor, and their eventual escape from him, all told in Jack’s words.  What a singular feat of great writing, to describe the thoughts of a young child whose only reality is a 12x12ft room;  who has never experienced rain, or hot sun;  who has never heard the sound of a car engine, except ‘in the TV’, who has never spoken to anyone else but his beloved Ma, let alone played with another child.  Ms Donoghue’s portrayal of Jack’s isolation is profound and very moving – and brilliant, especially as he struggles to understand and make sense of his new-found freedom – as does Ma:  her attempts to reintegrate herself into society and family bring catastrophic results.  This story will stay with me for a long time.  I found (as the blurb on the cover suggested) that I HAD to read it until it was finished, and anything else I read hereafter has a lot of measuring up to do!  This novel has just been selected as one of  the New York Times’  10 best books of the year, and shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize:  rightly so.  ‘The Finkler Question’ was the eventual Booker winner;  I look forward to reading it, but ‘Room’ will be a very hard act to follow.  FIVE STARS.

TraitorTraitor, by Stephen Daisley

This is a novel about friendship, sure and true and everlasting, born in the carnage of battle and strengthened by terrible subsequent adversity.  There are no happy endings in ‘Traitor’ for its theme is an exploration of what is traitorous:  the betrayal of friendship or of one’s country?  David Monroe is a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli;  he has already been mentioned in dispatches for his bravery at Chunuk Bair, but his life is changed forever by his meeting in the heat of bombardment with a Turkish Officer, a Doctor who is frantically trying to save the life of an Australian Digger – his enemy.  They are all victims of the next explosion;  the Australian dies and David, badly wounded by shrapnel, ends up being guard to the Turk Mahmoud, who has lost his foot and most of the fingers of one hand.  They bond with each other to the extent that David tries to help Mahmoud to escape, with disastrous results, especially for himself:  he is now regarded as a deserter and a traitor and undergoes terrible punishment, especially from men he formerly regarded as friends – they have no time for ‘conchies’.  He demonstrates his courage again and again as a stretcher bearer on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he has been sent after his prison sentence, but he is never forgiven, then or after the war;  people don’t care to associate with him for consorting with the enemy, a murderer of ‘our boys at the front’. 
This is Mr. Daisley’s debut novel and it is a searing, powerful evocation of a time when ‘King and Country’ meant everything to those at home and to those young men who went to fight – until they encountered the dreadful theatre of war, experiencing first-hand the great divide between patriotism and the bloody reality of destruction.  It is a story of love in many forms, parental love – in David’s case, the lack of it – the love of mateship, romantic love and the love of the land.  Mr. Daisley has crafted a superb and poignant story with unforgettable characters, and a wonderfully accurate portrayal of a life and times now barely remembered in this new century.   His prose is beautiful and elegiac – and utterly compelling.  Highly recommended.

Wait for meWait for me!, by Deborah Devonshire

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, was the last child and youngest daughter of David Mitford, second Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney.  Born in 1920, she was part of a family famous for its eccentricity – Sydney, known as Muv to her offspring, didn’t believe in sending girls off to school and educated them herself until they reached the age of eight;  then they were entrusted to a succession of governesses, some of whom were less than leading lights educationally speaking.  Lord Redesdale, called Farv, was unlucky in his financial investments (there were a succession of moves to smaller houses as the family fortunes waned) and delighted in being entirely unpredictable in his behavior, especially when his daughters brought friends home.  He was heard often to say  that he had only read one book, Jack London’s ‘White Fang’, and it was so excellent that it quite spoiled him for anything else, and he hadn’t read another  since!  This handsome pair produced a son and six daughters, all famed for their beauty, charm and intelligence:  Nancy achieved international prominence with her comic novels ( many of the characters based transparently on her family) and historical biographies, and Jessica’s essays, reviews and best-selling exposé of the funeral industry ‘The American Way of Death established her reputation as a writer of excellent satire, but it was the sisters’ politics which fascinated and enraged 30’s and 40’s society.  Diana, the most beautiful of the girls, married at the age of 18 the heir to the Guinness fortune, produced two sons then left him  after four years of marriage to become the mistress of Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Fascists and great  admirer of Hitler;  she embraced her new lover’s politics as ardently as she loved him and when Mosely’s wife died, Diana and he were married in Berlin, in Hitler’s Drawing Room.  The fifth Mitford daughter, Unity, had already  spent a considerable time in Germany, a complete convert to the Nazi ideal,with the hope of eventually meeting Herr Hitler whom she patently adored:  miraculously for her, the meeting took place and a very close and worshipful friendship was formed with the Fuehrer.  Jessica, in the meantime, had embraced Communism with typical Mitford fervor and harshly decried her sisters’ extreme politics, though her own were just as radical for the times – in short, these were all singular women whose restless energy, joie de vivre and a self-confidence born of being high- aristocracy enabled them to make their mark indelibly on 20th. Century manners and mores.
In this charming memoir, Deborah (Debo) follows in her family’s wake, crying ‘Wait for me!’  As the youngest some of the cataclysmic events occurring to her sisters flew over her head, but as time went on, she understood more and became closer to her sisters as they proceeded through their lives and loves at a breakneck pace;  in fact, Debo (if one reads  between the lines) had some amorous adventures herself:  dropped names glitter like sequins on every page, not least a friendship with President Kennedy.  As we now know, he was friends with a lot of women, and while Debo may not have been a ‘friend’ in the biblical sense (one hopes!) it is telling that Jackie Kennedy gets nary a mention:  ‘Jack’ occupies a lot of pages! 
In spite of  the sisters’ disparate political views – Debo has always been staunchly and loudly conservative – what impressed me most about this lovely, witty backward look into a family history is the great love that they all had for each other;  personal and political differences notwithstanding :  could one possibly ask for more?  Highly recommended.     

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