The bedside bookstack – September 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this September.

Are you Somebody by Nuala O’Faolain, New Island, 1996

This memoir was explosive when it came out in Ireland in the 90s. She’s adamant that her story as one of nine children with an alcoholic mother and a charismatic but absent and philandering father is nothing unique. It blew the lid off unspoken trauma, misogyny, alcoholism, neglect and poverty.

I couldn’t read it without thinking of my father’s Irish Catholic family. What part of this inheritance was theirs and what could they shuck off when they migrated to Australia?

I never knew she existed and now I need to read her novels and essays too. If you don’t have time for the book, in this interview with Canadian radio she covers most of it. If you need more or want the postscript, this is the last interview she gave. Trigger warning, she is dying of late-stage cancer and grappling with the end of her life and is not shying away from the intensity of either.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Penguin, 1997

I read this 20 years ago and couldn’t remember the details but the evocation of darkness and turmoil stayed. If you don’t know the premise, it’s clever. This is the story of Rochester’s mad woman-in-the-attic wife from Jane Eyre. Set in the Windward Islands of Jamaica, Antoinette is Creole. She has inherited her mother’s beauty, reputation for madness and enough money to get Rochester, a second-born son, as a husband. The mood is post-colonial Caribbean gothic where the sensuality of both climate and landscape always has an edge and uncertainty to it.

I read introductions and end notes with more interest these days than I did when I was 20 and the general conclusion is that Jean Rhys was ahead of her time. Her understanding of mental health certainly was, not as something that simply is but as behaviour that comes from trauma, isolation, provocation and lack of support.

I’ve always been a bit suspect of the Heathcliffs, Rochesters and Darcys. It’s too convenient that they get to hurt people repeatedly and then claim passion as their defence. After reading this, Rochester definitely comes in as more a-hole than brooding.

Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Penguin Classics, 1964

I eventually got to this book fifteen years after buying it because we’re in lockdown, the libraries are all closed and I’m actually reading my unread books. The pages are yellow, the font is crazy small and when I saw that it was a novel in verse, I nearly put it back on the shelf. Just seemed like too much hard work but it was an absolute delight.

I’m in awe that a translation can fit the intended rhyme and meter but what I really loved was how a place and age so foreign to me felt familiar because as humans, not much has changed. We’re still pining and snubbing, still loving and losing. My copy is now full with marginalia and post-its and I feel an Onegin essay brewing. I guess it’s a love story but with the infatuation only one side, can you call it that? I didn’t like Onegin, the man, at all.  You’re not supposed to I guess, as a Byronic hero. He was cold, arrogant and entitled and not even Ralph Fiennes in the movie version could change that for me.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 2019

There is a distinct world that you enter in a Ferrante novel. You’re placed very specifically not just in Naples but a neighbourhood. Characters are products of family and environment and your narrator’s internal world also becomes yours. Every decision, emotion and reaction is recorded and analysed. The process of living, in this case being a female teenager is dealt with forensically. 

In the Neapolitan novels (her four-book bestselling series), the preoccupations are political and intellectual. In this book they’re more theological and moral as our narrator tries to understand the difference between what the adults in her life have taught and told her and how they are actually behaving. If you know that you like Ferrante, then definitely read this. If not, give it a go and see if she’s your style.

Bark by Lorrie Moore, Faber & Faber, 2014

She is as good as everyone says she is. Her short stories read like a fully furnished room. They’re so complete. But readers a warning, the first three stories have a pretty bleak tone going on with regards to marriage, dating and middle-age life. She’s a great writer and I usually devour my anthologies like a novel but I was reluctant to head back into another bedsit and read about characters who didn’t really like each other or people in general. Glad I did though, because they aren’t all like that.

Seventeen poisoned Englishmen by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Penguin 2005 (first published 1968)

This pocket Penguin has three short stories. They’re pre 100 Years of Solitude and an interesting read because they have none of his signature magic realism style and inclusions. Reading them felt a bit like watching a comedian do a serious role. It gives you a glimpse of the range of their skills.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, Penguin Classics, 1962

This slim little volume has been sitting gathering dust on the shelf for years. It’s a green Penguin Classic with severely yellowed pages and a fraying spine. I’ve never read any Zola and if you don’t get to it during lockdown, will you ever?

If you have the idea that Classics are a hard read, which I sometimes do as you may recall from this blog, then you’ll be surprised by Therese Raquin. It’s an easy read but I won’t do it again. Therese Raquin is a young woman who is married to her sickly cousin. Her desire and will have lain dormant. When she gets a lover, everything that was subjugated is awakened. The lovers are consumed by their lust and are desperate for a way to be together. They kill her husband off, pretty early on, bide their time and then marry according to the plan they always had. But now their guilt consumes them, like their passion once did and so the rest of the book is about this inner-torment and how it translates into their physical and emotional abuse of each other – a massive trigger warning about the relentless domestic violence.

I was expecting the detailed human insight of a Chekhov or a Tolstoy but these characters are closer to caricatures. However, Zola was writing to a particular audience at a particular time and as he says in the Introduction to the second edition about Therese and Laurant “I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn to each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature. They are human animals, nothing more…”

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 1994

My husband reads a lot of science fiction and is a big Iain Banks fan. I thought it was time to get out of my usual genres and picked this one off the shelf. Talk about a ‘hard’ read. There’s a clever story buried in here but I didn’t have the patience to find it.

There are three narrators, most people have nine lives and one of the main characters is an ant. All intriguing in their own way but what I just couldn’t slog through was the phonetic narration that popped up every third chapter:

Lookth moar like a albino cro, akchooly. Well I cant thtand awound hea ol day chattin with u…..

On and on and on. Not for me.

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