Thursday, 5 January 2017

FIRST GREAT READS FOR JANUARY, 2017

Blue Dog, by Louis de Bernières

            ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ made Mr de Bernières so famous that he needs no introduction here;  currently he is working ‘on an enormous trilogy’ (his own words) the first volume – I hope – reviewed below.  Several of his books have been filmed, including ‘Red Dog’, a lovely tale based on the true story of a dog called ‘The Pilbara Wanderer’ who travelled whenever he could get a lift to various mining towns in Western Australia – he wasn’t adopted by people:  he decided who he would befriend, and for how long.  I hadn’t read the book, and after seeing the film decided that I was a big girl’s blouse and couldn’t bear more tears – it was a six-hanky movie!
            Anyway, a film prequel has been made which I shall be brave enough to see, for Red Dog doesn’t die at the end - hooray!  Again, Mr de Bernières has written another charmer, this time based on the screenplay by Daniel Taplitz. 
            We meet Red Dog’s original owner, 12 year-old Mick, who arrives in the middle of the Woop-Woops courtesy of a battered Cessna piloted by a rough and ready aviator who, after depositing him in the middle of a red desert excused himself ‘to shake hands with the unemployed’, shocking Mick to the core, for ‘he was from a polite family in Sydney, and they didn’t wee in public.’
            Mick has been sent to live with his grandfather who has a sheep station in what appears to be Mars;  his father died six months ago and his mother has had a mental collapse.  There is no-one else to look after him and he hasn’t visited his Granpa since he was two.  He has never felt more alone in his life.  He is trying not to be sad, trying not to cry, but it’s hard yakka:  he hopes he will be able to show a brave face, and not be a disappointment, a pale-faced city boy, albeit covered in red dust from the plane’s messy landing.
            Mr de Bernières weaves his reliable magic and we are hooked from the first page;  Mick’s  Granpa is the predictable rough diamond, helping his grandson to assimilate into the life of an outback station with lots of homespun wisdom – and uniquely Aussie humour.  I was so impressed by the writer’s effortless grasp of the wonderful slang that I had to Google him because I thought he was a Dinky-Di Aussie disguised as a Pom!  (My apologies to those of British ancestry – including Mr de Bernières, but I am paying him a huge compliment!)  
            For those who find all the dialect mystifying there is a Glossary at the end of the book where all shall be revealed, but what becomes beautifully clear is the healing process gradually established by good, rough and ready men who, despite their own losses (Mick’s dead father was Granpa’s beloved son) work together to make the world liveable again for a child who has lost everything.  
            And when a shivering, half-drowned puppy makes his appearance after a flood, Mick couldn’t ask for more – except a name for his new friend:  well, that was pretty easy, according to Granpa.  ‘All red dogs are called Blue.  It’s just a fact of life, the same as fat people are always called Slim.’
            This is a beautiful, poignant little story, made even better because Blue doesn’t die.  SIX STARS!

The Dust That Falls From Dreams, by Louis de Bernières

            It is August, 1902, and loyal Britons are holding Coronation parties throughout the land, for the dear old Queen has died after ruling for 63 years,   and her elderly and high-living son Edward the Seventh has ascended the throne.  The Victorian era has ended and the Edwardian age has begun, those sunlit years that reinforced – for the last time – the rigidity of class and certainty of one’s station in life:  everyone knows where they stand, and all is right with the world.
            Three prosperous neighbouring families meet on this beautiful summer day to celebrate the King’s ascension;  Mr and Mrs Pendennis, lately come from Baltimore, U.S.A. with their three fine sons;  Mr and Mrs Hamilton McCosh and their four vivacious daughters, and Mr and Mrs Pitt, parents of four strapping sons, two of whom are already fighting in the Boer War.  They are all fast friends and the children call themselves The Pals, certain that they will be friends always – in fact Rosie, the oldest McCosh girl has already accepted an offer of marriage (when they are old enough) from Ashbridge Pendennis, formalised by the gift of a brass curtain ring.  She will be his forever.
            It transpires that several of the other boys have crushes on Rosie, for she is the prettiest and because she has eyes for no-one but Ash, the most unattainable, despite great feats of courage and daring performed by the Pitt boys, Archie and Daniel in an effort to impress.  And Rosie IS impressed, but not long enough to alter her unswerving devotion to her beloved.
Mr de Berniéres, author of the wonderful ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is a master at setting the scene for this lovely story of the War to End all Wars and the  death of an Empire;  his characters beautifully personify the times, especially when ‘that dreadful Kaiser’ starts the war and the flower of England’s youth rush to enlist – after all, ‘it will be all over by Christmas’ and no young man wants to miss out on the excitement and the opportunity to ‘do his bit’, including Ashbridge Pendennis and Daniel Pitt, leaving their loved ones at home to fret and marvel at their bravery.
And the worst happens:  Ash dies of his wounds in France, leaving Rosie with a yawning hole in her life which she tries to fill with religion.  She and her sisters attempt to give meaning to their lives by volunteering at the hospitals to look after the wounded and are horrified and chastened by the suffering they see and try to alleviate.  Daniel Pitt’s two brothers did not return from South Africa and his widowed mother fears for her remaining two sons, for Daniel has become an Air Ace, and Archie is fighting on the NorthWest Frontier.  Life will never be the same again.  They will never return to the halcyon days of Coronation parties and certainty of place and Empire, and Mrs. McCosh, a gentlewoman who corresponds upon occasion with the King – and his secretary always replies – is horrified at the breakdown of manners and mores which now allow common people to Actually Come to the Front Door.  It’s entirely too awful to think about!
This is a story that is not finished in this book;  there are many characters (some extremely irritating, Rosie’s twitty sister Sophie being a prime example) that still have parts to play and the pace is so leisurely (except for the superb, brutal battle scenes) and the ending so inconclusive that Mr de Bernières MUST be planning a sequel.  I live in hope!  FIVE STARS.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry.

            In an obscure Essex coastal village, rumours flourish:  it has long been accepted by the locals that their little settlement of Aldwinter has been the occasional home of a sea serpent, a huge creature with ‘wings like umbrellas’ and a long thrashing tail, capable of taking  livestock and children when fish are in short supply.  It first made its appearance in the 17th century, and has been a stock explanation ever since for inexplicable absences; after a long period of quiet there have been so many puzzling and tragic anomalies lately that the rumour machine is working overtime:  the serpent has returned!
            Into this divided camp of superstition and ‘seeing-is-believing’ comes Cora Seaborne, a wealthy woman recently widowed (and not the least bit mournful.)  She has a keen interest in the fossils of millions of years ago, so recently discovered at Lyme Regis by – dare she utter it – A WOMAN! And Cora Seaborne hopes to discover the truth or otherwise of the tales that have reached as far as her upper-class home in London.  That her husband, the source of her wealth, has just died very painfully of throat cancer concerns her not at all:  he was a sadist and deserved his end and if anyone asked Cora (which they haven’t) she would reply that she earned every minute of the new-found freedom her wealth has given her.  Her only regret is that she does not have a more loving relationship with her son Francis, a solitary boy who does not regard the world as ordinary children do.
            Cora has a paid companion of whom she is very fond, Martha, originally hired to be a nurse to Francis, but becoming more of an indispensable friend as the years go by;  Martha is a socialist and wishes to make life better and more liveable for the poor, and to that end she harbours contempt for all the idle rich she meets through Cora but, emboldened by her friend’s heady first tastes of freedom and new-found feminism she is convinced that the Victorian male-dominated world can be breeched if only there were more women like themselves!
            Ms Perry paints a vast and splendid portrait of a world that in its strictures and mores still bears a chilling similarity to our own supposedly ‘enlightened’ one, especially with regard to price-gouging investors and their connection to homelessness and poverty;  she also employs through her main protagonists spirited combat between superstition, blind religious faith and scientific logic – for Cora meets the local vicar William Ransome and his beautiful wife Stella and is charmed by their whole family – but not enough to keep her revolutionary opinions to herself.  And the Reverend, trying all the while to turn his frightened flock away from what he sees as absurd superstition applied to coincidences (rather a number of them, it must be said) has also to fight a growing attraction for the hurricane force that is the newly-released Cora Seaborne, who wants only to be recognised as a person of intellect, of ideas, not the wearer of silks, corsets (!), jewels and perceived conventions.
            In the hands of a lesser writer, we would have had a good old-fashioned Victorian Fruity Melodrama, but Ms Perry writes with beauty and elegance and her stunning imagery lays bare the ugliness of Victorian life as well as its sumptuousness.  Does anything ever really change?  FIVE STARS.   

             

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