I think I need to start this review with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenag...moreI think I need to start this review with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and assumed I'd read everything by Orwell that was worth reading. I was obviously wrong because Coming Up for Air is a great book, though very different from his two most famous novels. In a way, though, I'm glad I've waited until now to read it because I'm not sure I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger.
Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and tells the story of George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance salesman who is bored with his dreary, middle-class existence. Married with two children, George's biggest worries are his mortgage, his weight and the risk of losing his job, but with Europe on the brink of war he knows that the monotony of his life could be about to change. On the day that he receives a new set of false teeth, George takes a trip into London where he sees a poster that triggers memories of his childhood and Lower Binfield, the small, peaceful town where he grew up. George is tempted to return to Lower Binfield for the first time in years, but if he goes back now, what will he find?
Based on the other two books I've read, this is not really the type of book I would have expected from George Orwell. However, there are some similarities with Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell's surprisingly accurate predictions of the future. Reading this book gave me an eerie feeling, knowing that it was being written just before the beginning of the Second World War, when the author could have had no real knowledge of what was to come, yet anticipating the changes that would soon be upon the nation.
"I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me."
My favourite part of the book was the long section in the middle where George looks back on his childhood in Lower Binfield at the turn of the century. This whole section is a lovely nostalgic portrait of an England that is now gone forever...that had already gone by 1939, destroyed by the First World War.
"1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It'll never come again. I don't mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you've either had and don't need to be told about, or haven't had and won’t ever have the chance to learn."
The novel doesn't have a lot of plot, but that wasn't a problem; I didn't find it slow at all. There's not much dialogue either, as we spend the whole book inside George's head with his thoughts and memories. Despite this, I found the book completely engrossing. The only time I got bored was with George's long and enthusiastic description of fishing, his favourite hobby until the age of fifteen. But even this was steeped in nostalgia:
"The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool — and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside — belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler."
George's actions and opinions are not always very admirable and his views on the women in his life leave a lot to be desired, but despite his flaws, I couldn't actually dislike him. He's so ordinary; not a hero, but a real human being with good points and bad points. He has a wryly funny, self-deprecating narrative style which saves the book from becoming too depressing, though overall I found this a sad and poignant story rather than a humorous one. I don't know much about Orwell's own life, but I'm sure this book must have been autobiographical to some extent.
I loved Coming Up for Air and will certainly consider trying another of Orwell's books. (less)
Despite the attempts of her mother to arrange a good marriage for her, Kitty Garstin is in no hurry to find a husband. She’s too busy enjoying herself...moreDespite the attempts of her mother to arrange a good marriage for her, Kitty Garstin is in no hurry to find a husband. She’s too busy enjoying herself at parties and dances, and it’s only when she’s still unmarried at the age of twenty-five and discovers that her younger sister has become engaged to a baronet that she begins to panic. She agrees to marry Walter Fane, a bacteriologist, and moves to Hong Kong with him. Walter is shy, clever and serious and to the pretty, frivolous Kitty, he seems very cold and aloof. Although he is in love with her, she doesn’t love him in return and soon begins an affair with the charming, charismatic Assistant Colonial Secretary, Charles Townsend.
Eventually Walter learns the truth about Kitty and Charles and confronts Kitty with an ultimatum. She can either accompany him into the interior of China where he has volunteered to deal with a cholera epidemic, or he will allow her to divorce him – but only if Charles agrees to divorce his wife and immediately marry Kitty. When Kitty goes to discuss the situation with Charles, she is cruelly disillusioned by her lover and is left with no other option than to travel to Mei-tan-fu with Walter. Kitty is convinced that Walter is taking her there in the hope that she will die, but it’s here in this remote cholera-ridden city that Kitty finally begins to grow as a person and to make some discoveries about both herself and her husband.
This book was such a surprise. I think I must have formed a preconceived idea that I wouldn’t like Somerset Maugham without ever having tried any of his books or knowing anything about him, because I really didn’t expect to love this as much as I did. I’m so pleased to find that I was wrong! The Painted Veil is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I found Maugham’s writing much easier to read than I had thought it might be, but also filled with beauty, poignancy and emotion.
This is quite a short novel but both main characters have a lot of depth and complexity. I disliked Kitty at first – she’s selfish, spoiled and immature – but the fact that she is so flawed and makes such terrible mistakes is what makes her so human. Kitty is changed by her experiences in Mei-tan-fu and we see her mature and gain in wisdom and insight. By the end of the book, I still didn’t like her but I had a better understanding of her and I wanted her to be happy. I had more sympathy for Walter, but because we are viewing him through Kitty’s eyes, we don’t really have a chance to see the other side of his personality that we hear about – when the nuns in the convent tell Kitty how much they admire him, for example, and how tender and loving he can be with the orphaned babies there. Kitty barely knows or understands her husband at all and when she finally begins to do so, we are made to wonder whether it’s going to be too late.
There aren’t a lot of long, descriptive passages in this book but 1920s China is still portrayed beautifully and I loved the description of Kitty watching the rooftops emerging from the mist on her first morning in Mei-tan-fu.
If you read this book I would also recommend reading Shelley’s sonnet Lift Not The Painted Veil and Oliver Goldsmith’s An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.(less)
Sylvia’s Lovers is set in the final years of the eighteenth century in the small town of Monkshaven on the Yorkshire coast. During this period Britain...moreSylvia’s Lovers is set in the final years of the eighteenth century in the small town of Monkshaven on the Yorkshire coast. During this period Britain and France were at war and the men of Monkshaven lived in fear of the press-gangs who regularly captured sailors from the town and forced them into action against France. Against this backdrop we meet Sylvia Robson, the beautiful young daughter of a farmer from nearby Haytersbank, and the two very different men who hope to marry her. One of these is Sylvia’s cousin, Philip Hepburn, a serious, reliable man who works in a draper’s shop; the other is the much more exciting and charismatic Charley Kinraid, a ‘specksioneer’ (chief harpooner) on a whaling ship. When Philip discovers that Kinraid is a rival for Sylvia’s love, he makes a decision that will eventually have tragic consequences for everyone involved.
Elizabeth Gaskell said this was the saddest book she ever wrote and I can definitely understand why she would have said that! Apart from the central storyline involving Sylvia, Philip and Kinraid, there are other characters with their own tragic stories to be told. Hester Rose, for example, who works with Philip in Foster’s shop and has been secretly in love with him for years without ever daring to say so. And Daniel Robson, Sylvia’s father, a former whaler who decides to take action to stop any more of the town’s young men being pressed into the navy.
Monkshaven is a fictional town but was based closely on the real North Yorkshire town of Whitby. My own familiarity with Whitby (I’ve been there many times over the years) made it easy for me to picture the scenes. When we were told of a funeral procession slowly winding its way up the steps to the church on the cliff or the crowds gathering to watch a whaling ship coming in, I could see the images clearly in my mind.
Sylvia’s Lovers took a long time to read (it was 500 pages and felt even longer, partly because I had to concentrate on understanding the dialogue – I should probably warn you that this book does contain a lot of Yorkshire dialect) but the setting, the historical background and the characters kept me interested. Sylvia frustrated me at the beginning because she was so silly and immature, uneducated and unwilling to learn; by the end of the book though, she had changed a lot and I found myself starting to like her. I had sympathy for Philip, both before and after he made his terrible mistake, and I loved Hester Rose. Kinraid was the only character who never felt fully developed but I think that was maybe intentional.
This book reminded me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, with all the descriptions of scenery, the local dialect, the focus on rural working-class life and the overwhelming mood of sadness and misery. As one tragedy followed another through the second half of the book, it started to seem that there were going to be no happy endings for any of the characters. I can honestly say this was one of the most depressing books I’ve read and on a few occasions towards the end I wondered why I was still reading it. The answer to that is because I find Gaskell’s writing so beautiful and moving and because she had really made me care what happened to Sylvia, Philip, Hester and the others. This is only the second Gaskell novel I’ve read; the first was North and South which is a much more popular book, but I think I liked this one more despite it being so heartbreaking.(less)