Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

carol.jpgMy latest classic is a modern one: this month, I read Carol by Patricia Highsmith (entitled The Price of Salt on its initial publication in 1952). I’ve not seen the film, so that was nothing to do with my decision to read it; I was, however, interested in the book based on what I have read about the movie.

The eponymous Carol is a beguiling and mysterious woman who becomes a source of great fascination to Therese, a young woman working as a shop assistant when the two first meet. The novel begins with Therese sort-of-engaged to Richard but clearly not really feeling it; there is more passion in the moment when she writes a receipt for Carol than there is in any of the supposedly intimate exchanges Therese shares with Richard. I was expecting Carol and Therese’s relationship to be a grand passion but it didn’t really start out that way; Therese is clearly besotted with Carol but, it seemed to me, Carol begins their friendship merely as a distraction – something to take her mind off her ongoing divorce and custody battle. Carol is a curiously cold character who, for the first two thirds of the book, is really quite mean to Therese. I was confused by her characterisation, although not in a way which reflects badly on the writing; I think this is just evidence of how Highsmith writes her characters with tremendous nuance and ambiguity.

The relationship between Therese and Carol seems dangerous from the outset; on a drive, Therese inwardly wishes “the tunnel might cave in and kill them both, that  their bodies might be dragged out together” (does this make anyone else start singing There is a Light That Never Goes Out by the Smiths?) and, a little later, when Carol makes her hot milk, Therese “drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink a potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill.” There seems to be an almost wilful destructiveness in her actions and thoughts; clearly bored of her life, Therese seems to be daring the world to bring her something more fiery and complicated. Once her passion is reciprocated, her thoughts are less worrying. Embarking on a road trip across the USA made me wonder if the whole thing was heading for a Thelma and Louise-esque conclusion, but obviously nothing quite so dramatic ensues.

It’s interesting to read Carol as a historical source and think about the attitudes to sexuality which restrict Carol and Therese; Carol’s estranged husband sends a private detecting after them to ‘prove’ their relationship, as if it’s a crime. At the very least, it’s a means for him to ensure his own custody of their daughter. I rarely felt sympathy for Carol because it always seems like she knows exactly what she’s doing; although placing her affair with Therese ahead of her relationship with her daughter is perhaps romantic, it’s difficult to empathise with a character who makes that kind of decision.

I think the thing I liked the most about Carol, weirdly, was the depiction of New York; it’s a city I love to read about and to see it in different eras fascinates me. I envisaged scenes in the style of Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks, with moody lighting and secluded bars.

Basically, I enjoyed Carol but it wasn’t really what I was expecting. I think I’ll try to read some more Patricia Highsmith, so if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them. If you’ve read this book (or seen the film), please share your thoughts in the comments!

Review: Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

unbecomingSince becoming a parent, relationships between mothers or fathers and their kids in fiction have been a source of particular fascination to me. For this reason, Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming really appealed to me: it’s the story of three generations of women in one family and the issues that arise when they’re all thrown together in one house. The novel begins in a hospital, with seventeen year old Katie and her mother, Caroline, unexpectedly summoned to collect Caroline’s long-estranged mother, Mary, who is suffering from both Alzheimer’s and the loss of her partner. Caroline is displeased, to say the least, but is forced to take Mary home, and it is this event which drives the plot through long-hidden family secrets, simmering resentments and dramatic revelations.

Unbecoming is one of those books which makes me wonder what YA actually is; half the novel is devoted to an elderly woman and her fading memories of life in the 1950s, which seems to me more fitting for an adult readership, although I suppose the great strength of YA at the moment is its ability to engage both teens and grown-ups. Some YA books, like Beautiful Broken Things, for example, have made me question how a teenage reader responds to the presentation of parents, and Unbecoming does this too. Although the whole novel is narrated in third person, the story alternates between Katie and Mary’s perspectives, with Caroline never being allotted her own narrative voice, and I think this has a really big impact on how the reader perceives her. Initially, she’s almost unfeasibly self-centred, passive-aggressive and cold, frequently dismissing Katie by saying, “ I can’t deal with this,” or “I don’t need this right now.” Her reasons for resenting Mary become clear throughout the novel and their relationship is fascinatingly complex, but, at the outset, Caroline is a pretty straightforward character in terms of her unpleasantness. I imagine that a young reader would see her as a nightmare; she harasses Katie constantly about doing homework, expects her to shoulder the responsibility for chores and looking after her brother, and demands to speak to the parents of a classmate having a party to check there won’t be alcohol. I’m a mum though, and, as with Beautiful Broken Things, I found myself sympathising with the uncool parent; while I think Caroline goes overboard with the academic pressure, her protectiveness is understandable. Yes, she’s a martyr, talking a little too much about how much she has to do and how it’s for everyone else’s benefit, but I sometimes sound like that when my husband has worked late for a couple of days and I’ve had to do parenting solo for 12 hours; Caroline is a single, working parent and I think it takes a grown-up to realise how bloody hard that must be. I would have loved to see more of Caroline’s perspective in the novel; for me, she’s the most interesting character.

A trend I see creeping into YA is the trendy, sweary grandparent, which I’m never entirely convinced by. Mary, by contrast, is a fully believable character, epitomised by the title: “unbecoming” is an adjective levelled at her in her youth, as she kisses boys and embarrasses her family, and in the novel’s present, her Alzheimer’s means that she is literally “unbecoming” herself. Downham handles this aspect of the novel beautifully, accentuating the tragedy of Mary’s dwindling memory without ever over-sentimentalising; the description of the notes that Mary’s late partner left around the house to help her, in particular, is genuinely touching. The relationship between Mary and Katie is lovely, and effectively juxtaposed with Katie’s disintegrating relationship with her own mother. The text Unbecoming most reminds me of is Kindertransport, the play by Diane Samuels which, similarly, focuses on the relationships between three generations of women; Samuels also employs dark secrets, fracturing bonds and interesting female characters, in comparable ways to Downham. Both texts, for me, demonstrate all that is brilliant and terrible about being a woman and being with other women, using both intense emotion and intense lack of emotion to highlight the expectations and struggles of just being a woman.

Overall, I’ve got a lot of time for Unbecoming. I think it depicts ideas which aren’t particularly prevalent in contemporary YA and it does so with conviction and sensitivity; there are lots of issues here, some of which I haven’t even mentioned, but the story never seems heavy-handed or overly loaded down with tragedy and conflict. I am really happy to have read something so densely populated with fully-developed female characters, all of whom are sympathetic and repellent in their own ways; aside from the central trio of Katie, Mary and Caroline, there is a fascinating supporting cast (although “supporting” is perhaps the wrong word given the amount of dispute in the story) of ex-friends, sisters, adopted mothers and enigmatic waitresses. Unbecoming is a book about family, about love, about forgiveness, and it’s one I really recommend.

Top Ten Tuesday: Formative Bookworm Experiences

The topic for this week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is Bookworm Delights; I think the idea is to write about how nice the pages of a new book smell and such, but I don’t really feel like showing the world just how weird I am about stuff like that. So I am going to write about my Top Ten Bookworm Experiences, because that will in no way whatsoever expose how weird I am.

That time I saw a writer on a train
Back in the day, we knew of Louise Wener as the singer from a Britpop band called Sleeper, who are, in case you’re wondering awesome (and if you don’t know that, you should listen to Inbetweener. Now). These days, she is a pretty good novelist, as well as the author of an excellent memoir called Different for Girls. About a bazillion years ago, my friend Lucy and I saw her on a train from Essex to London. She was writing something. I now like to look back on this and imagine she was writing one of her books and our obsessive (but obviously very cool) staring inspired her.

That time I beat the system and my seminar group hated me
When I was studying for my Masters, I took a course called something awful like Cinematic Landscapes, which involved watching a lot of westerns and film noir. On the reading list was a book called Hollywood Genres, which cost £40. Yes, 40 actual pounds. I found a copy on ebay for 50p. Not only was this an epic bargain, but the seller lived down the road from my parents and so I dispatched the father to pick it up, thus saving myself the postage. Obviously I shared my triumph with my peers, who had all paid £40 for a book we mentioned maybe once all semester.

That time I had to cut someone out of the group
So, I hate lending people books and have basically stopped doing it. I cannot psychologically deal with the awkwardness of navigating that moment when it becomes clear the lendee thought you were just giving them  a book. Is that even a thing? Anyway, before I realised the horror of this situation, I lent my copy of Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk to a (now ex-) friend and never got it back. I complained about this for so long that my husband bought me a first edition, signed by Chuck himself, for Christmas. I married well, people.

That time I accidentally lied to my grandmother
I adore my grandmother; she is a complete legend. Even though she has all kind of horrible-sounding stuff going on with her eyes, she is still a devoted reader, when she isn’t quizzing me about how house prices in the north compare with those in the south. So I was very happy when my mum told me that said grandmother really wanted a copy of J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions and hadn’t been able to find one; she’d had a copy years ago, but didn’t know where it had gone. Being the internet-savvy legend that I am, I found a copy and bought it for her birthday. Nanny was thrilled. A few weeks later, I was packing up my bookshelves to move house, and found a copy of J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions. I opened it. It had my grandmother’s name in it. Luckily, she found this very funny. Then asked me how much my house cost.

That time I was an alcohol-fuelled genius
I was a very devoted student at university. But I also sometimes got forced to go out, even if I had a deadline the next day. During my first year, I was bullied into going to a club and had to abandon my Waiting for Godot essay, which I was struggling with due to the fact that Waiting for Godot is impossible to write about. I escaped from my social kidnapping at approximately 2am, went straight to the IT room and finished my essay. It achieved the best goddamn mark I received in the whole of my first year and my tutor called it “inspired.” Next time I’m struggling with a book review, I’m just going to hit the tequila.

That time I hated typing
Also during my degree, I took a course on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. During said course, I wrote an essay about Henry V, specifically focusing on the contrast between his public and private personas. I know: smart, right? Except when you type carelessly and miss out the ‘l’ in ‘public,’ your essay turns into something quite different. Oddly, my tutor said she really enjoyed my essay but I’m not sure it was because of my impressive understanding of the Battle of Agincourt.

That time my teachers probably hated me
As a big-time English nerd, I always thought I was being a brilliant student by reading my set texts overnight and knowing the answer to every single question the teacher asked from that point on. Having been given my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, I started reading it on the bus home, kept reading it instead of talking to my family and had finished it by the next day. Now that I am a teacher, I can appreciate how annoying this was. Yes, I was keen and that’s good; all those lessons the teacher had planned for us to read the book, however, were just opportunities for me to annoy everyone by smugly saying, “oh, I’ve read this bit.” It’s weird how I survived school.

So, that’s only 7, but this is now really long, so I’m going to call it quits, get drunk and write a review of that Neil Gaiman book I just read which really confused me. Please feel free to share your own bookworm past in the comments. Together, we can heal.


Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

spillsimmer.jpgI’m not entirely sure how to feel about Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume. On the one hand, it is an intense character study of an intriguingly distant man. On the other, it’s a slow-paced story about a strange man who gets a dog. The last book I finished before this one was Fifteen Dogs, so maybe I have canine overload.

The book is narrated by Ray, a fifty-seven year old loner, and addressed entirely to his dog, One Eye; mauled by a badger and adopted by Ray, One Eye is a difficult and occasionally vicious dog who is unlikely to change my existing less than affectionate view of his species. Marley and Me, this is not (not that I’ve read Marley and Me, obviously. So, for all I know, Marley is a one-eyed canine psychopath too).

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a very subtle, slow-burning story. The style, with Ray talking to One Eye and that forming the whole narrative, creates an almost suffocating sense of isolation; Ray talks to One Eye not just in the normal way that people talk to their dogs, but because he has nobody else to talk to. This was the part of the novel which most fascinated me; Ray has clearly had a very strange and sad life, the details of which are involved so slowly and quietly that you can almost miss them while you read. My heart did break a little bit for Ray, and I was touched by the parallels between the maimed dog who knows no way to interact with other dogs besides attacking them, and his owner who fears interaction with other people.

I suppose this inability to talk to people is at the root of the key event of the novel; as it’s in the blurb, I feel like it’s okay to say that something bad happens, resulting in Ray and One Eye abandoning their home and going on the run. Ray’s social inabilities mean that he can’t think of another way to cope with what has happened, and running away seems like the only option.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a peculiar book; not a lot happens, there’s barely any dialogue and it’s a two-hander insofar as there can be such a thing when one of the ‘hands’ is a dog. This makes it quite difficult to get into, I think, but serves to emphasise all the reasons to be absorbed in Ray’s story in the first place.