Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom, from our group in June 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

Most of our reading group agreed that ‘The Kitchen House’ by Kathleen Grissom was a good story and a good read.

The main setting is in the ‘Kitchen House ‘on a cotton plantation in the Southern states of America.
The story features black slavery, but is about multiple types of entrapment that physically, emotionally and mentally enslave most of the white characters and all of those that are black. It illustrates the stark difference between good and evil and exposes an age that had little regard for personal respect, human dignity and sexual choice. An age that was afraid to lose control and was motivated by feudal power to its own enragement.

The main character is Lavinia. She is introduced to the reader as a white, Irish seven year old. A child traumatised by the loss of her parents and by witnessing a slave hanging.

The lot of the Irish in this era isn’t clear. The reading group would have appreciated more information about indentured servitude as Lavinia is the character that we follow throughout the novel.

The owner of the wealthy plantation is called the ‘Captain’. Lavinia is transported to the plantation to work and is put into the kitchen house under the care of two black slaves: Belle and her mother Mama Mae. Belle is a favoured slave as she is the captain’s illegitimate daughter. Throughout the novel Belle and Lavinia’s lives become increasingly more entwined. Both women care for children who are jointly dependent on each of them. Two of their children are conceived by the Captain’s legitimate son Marshal; Belle’s as a result of rape and Lavinia’s within her marriage to Marshal. Both women were forced by circumstance into their pre-marital and marital roles. Both were in love with other men.

Lavinia considers her black family her kin. She struggles in a conservative white world to assert her identity. Members of the reading group found some of the other characters in Lavinias ‘family‘ story came across as stereotypical, and it was difficult for the reader to make them real. Some found the complexity of the relationships hard to follow. However, it was felt that the life of the plantation owner’s wife Miss Martha was more believable and that her descent into drug dependency and insanity served as a dynamic illustration of social entrapment.

Ben, a black slave at the plantation, is Belle’s true love. Lavinia loves and trusts Will Stephens, a white plantation owner. Will is a practising Christian and treats slaves with comparative respect. This makes him the natural enemy of Rankin, the Captain’s overseer. Rankin is the all-time white ‘Bad guy!’

The actions of Ben and Rankin affect the lives of all main characters. Rankin’s credibility with the Captain causes the monstrous side of Marshal to develop. In the early stages of the story, Rankin encourages Waters, a paedophile tutor, in his abuse of the child Marshal. There is no communication beyond formality in the ‘Big Plantation House,’ it’s only in the ‘Kitchen House’ that there is awareness of what is happening.

A dynamic tension of values arises as Ben chooses crime to prevent Rankin’s cruelty to both fellow slaves and Miss Martha’s children. Will Stephens is the only white person who displays integrity and refutes Rankin and his methods of control.

The tension between good and evil continues to escalate and towards the end, similar to how the story starts, Lavinia’s young daughter Elly is a witness to the hanging of innocent Mama Mae. Following this, Elly also loses her father Marshall to an early violent death.

Members of the group agreed we would like to read the sequel as we need to know what happens to the children.

Ann . Clapton reader.


Monday, 6 October 2014

"The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood - October 2014

All of us were tremendously impressed by the writing, the story, and the history in “The Blind Assassin”. One member said that the story “grabbed her straightaway” from the opening sentence, and we all agreed that the writing was intriguing and beautiful, with inventive turns of phrases and cleverly constructed ambiguity. We readers were never sure if the narrator was reliable (and we learn later on that she has led us down the garden path in several ways), but despite switching between different ages and perspectives, Margaret Atwood always manages to make it perfectly clear where we are, and manages it elegantly and seamlessly, with no clunky constructions or other possible pitfalls a lesser author could have stumbled into. An amazing novel.

We felt that we got a good overview of the history of the 20th Century; politics, feminism, and fashion included: one member commented that she “could practically see the hemlines rising” in the descriptions of changing fashion, and that the portrayal of women’s clothing, the sister-in-law Winifred’s in particular, was deliciously detailed. (Speaking of Winifred, we thought she was a perfect beast – well, we used a stronger b-word, actually – a wonderfully hateable and horrible character!). Atwood describes the impact WW1 (and 2) had on both the soldiers and the women left behind; the helplessness of all involved, the unprepared-ness for the trauma of loss, the resulting isolation and disconnection people felt.

We loved the individual characters; beastly Winifred, the strangeness of Iris’s sister Laura, the sound aphorisms and resolute no-nonsense commentary of wonderful Reenie, who brought warmth, comic relief, and something concrete to hold on to in the midst of the emotional turmoil Iris went through. The class contempt Laura feels towards Iris's hard-headed industrialist husband is cleverly expressed in snide, aside remarks - with few words we get a complete picture. We also loved the powerful similes, and expressions like "baleful weather" expressed perfectly a dreary November or February day.

One group member commented that she did not enjoy the novel within the novel (the excerpts of Laura’s “The Blind Assassin”; technically a novel within a novel within this novel) at all, but that that fact did not hamper her enjoyment of the book one little bit – it fit the story overall.

It was impressive how all the different strands of the book pulled together perfectly in the end. We witnessed the changes in the narrator with awe – Iris develops from her initial naivety to a mature character without losing any of her unique voice, and all the ambiguous bits of information come together in a finale that is the opposite of rushed. In fact, one group member commented that as far as 50-100 pages from the end, the big revelation that turns the entire book on its head is casually, confidently, dropped into the text, and the reader is left to work out the implications in her own time; this shows a respect for the reader’s intelligence, and is a sensational feat exactly because the casual reveal so far from the end looks like the opposite of sensational.

However, some of us thought that the novel was getting repetitive and overlong, especially towards the end when Iris elaborates on her ailments and bad moods - we thought that it might have been a deliberate attempt at conveying her feelings by making the reader feel as weary and bored as the narrator, but more likely the reason was lack of rigorous editing!

Overall however, we praised the confident handling of the dramatic aspects of the story, a nonchalance that shows that, in one of our group member's words, Margaret Atwood is a "mistress of her own material", confident in the manner and pace of her narrator's revelations, and her narrator's lack of sentimentality. We all came away impressed with Ms Atwood, and eager to read more of her books - for most members this was their first Atwood book, and everyone was intent to read more. We finished the group chatting about holidays in Canada: its bitter winters, entertaining/frightening encounters with bears, wolves, and moose, and examples of some other writers the country has produced that are among our member's favourites, namely Saul Bellow and Steven Pinker. Margaret Atwood has provided us with a great group meeting all round.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

"The Secret Place" by Tana French, September 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

The Secret Place is a murder mystery set in a girls’ boarding school in Dublin. It is the latest in a series of novels by Tana French involving the Dublin Murder Squad. Unlike other detective series these novels do not have the same detectives as the main protagonists (e.g. Rebus, Dalgliesh, Wexford) although characters may reappear. This time the police officers are Conway, a female murder squad detective and Moran, from the missing persons squad.

Our reading group felt that the murder mystery was not the real focus of the novel; it is about relationships. The central whodunit is a framework on which to look at how a variety of relationships work. We have Conway and Moran, both misfits in their own way, both clever and ambitious, both working class, yet so very different. It was felt that the book was at its strongest when focussing on this pair. We all liked the strong feminist aspect of Conway, a non-conformist who won’t compromise in order to fit in and be popular. The narrator is Moran and his voice was authentic, we felt French really pulled off writing as a man. By the end of the novel there is clearly genuine mutual respect between Conway and Moran and perhaps the beginnings of true friendship but refreshingly absolutely no hint of romantic involvement.

The contrast between Conway and Moran’s responses to the upper middle class surroundings of the school was also well written. Conway is prickly, she clearly dislikes many of the people there and is dismissive of their sensibilities. She bristles when having to deal with them and finds the place oppressive. Moran on the other hand finds the old building and the art on the walls beautiful and he aspires to be comfortable in that environment. French nicely inverts the usual stereotypes and we have Moran as the empathetic one and Conway as the gruff, tough cop.

Moran is approached by a schoolgirl, Holly, whom he knows from an earlier case. She brings him a message she’s spotted pinned on the eponymous “secret place”, a noticeboard in the school where the girls can express their feelings. The message says “I know who killed him” and refers to the murder of a boy in the school grounds the previous year. Conway had been the detective on that case and she and Moran go into the school to try to discover the identity of the author of the note.

There are 2 groups of friends, four in each, on whom the attention is focussed. Much of the story is told through social media and text messages and teenage dialogue. Our group was divided on how successfully this was done: how true to life was the slang? Was this just an adult’s view of how teenagers speak and behave? We felt there should have been more differentiation in the language as it seems unlikely that teenage girls intelligent enough to run rings around detectives should have such limited vocabulary. On the other hand some scenes seemed very accurate, such as hanging out in the Mall and the varied reactions to it.

At the centre of the novel are the friendships and rivalry between the girls and the groups of girls. As the story unfolds we understand that many mistakes and terrible actions were caused by a need to protect friends at all costs. While some of these may not be believable in ‘real life’ you are swept up in the story as the depth of feeling these girls have for each other is completely credible. The hermetic environment of the boarding school fuels this closeness and it is very well invoked. The evolving sexuality and sexual awareness of all the girls and the discomfort poor Moran feels around these ‘predatory’ girls was palpable.

Beyond the interaction between all the central characters, other relationships were also well depicted. Holly and her father, the tension between Holly’s parents and the effect it has on her are convincing.

There is an element of magical realism in the book which had our group divided as well. Was it necessary? If so, why not carry it through? It moved from being fairly central to the dynamic of one of the friendship groups to being dropped and not mentioned again.

Generally the response to The Secret Place was extremely positive with one reader saying it was one of the best books she’d read with the group and another buying more Tana French. Even the less favourable reactions were tempered by positive comments on some aspects. Overall a hit.