What Maisie Knew tells the story of a child subject to a vicious custody dispute between her parents in 1890s London. Family law dictates she is to be...moreWhat Maisie Knew tells the story of a child subject to a vicious custody dispute between her parents in 1890s London. Family law dictates she is to be 'halved' between them and thus begins Maisie's life as the pawn in her parents' power struggle.
I think this would have to be a must-read for anyone with an interest in child psychology. I found little Maisie's struggle to understand the convoluted world of adult relationships into which she has been prematurely thrust quite touching, despite the veneer of irony and sly social commentary that James uses. Even though Henry James's style is renowned for its use of long and convoluted sentences, and clever little narratorial asides, he still manages to recreate the innocent bewilderment and wondering of a young mind and I really wanted Maisie to survive her turbulent childhood emotionally in tact. Reading between the lines of Maisie's quite naive perceptions, you can see that her childhood is a very bleak one indeed, but the focus is really on the absurdities and, at times, complete impropriety of her parents and guardians.
As the title indicates, the driving force of the plot lies in the gradually narrowing gap between what the adult reader can interpolate and Maisie's limited comprehension of the marriage break-ups, infidelities and liasons going on all around her. Her failure to grasp the full implication of events is quite sad and poignant, but every now and then, as children are liable to do, she demonstrates a sort of alarming capacity to see right to the heart of adult weaknesses and foibles. Children are pretty under-represented in the literary world, but in this case James uses his protagonist as a subtle and precise mirror for the inadequacies and failings of adults and their motivations- love, sex and money.(less)
Generally, I found The Last September an interesting, pleasant read. Stylistically, it reminded me quite a bit of Virginia Woolf's writing. There's no...moreGenerally, I found The Last September an interesting, pleasant read. Stylistically, it reminded me quite a bit of Virginia Woolf's writing. There's not as much obvious stream of consciousness in the narration, but like Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen uses a fast moving, at times scattered narrative style to replicate the shallow, disconnected interactions of her characters. The world of Danielstown is drawn in vivid, impressionistic imagery- Bowen uses inventive, unexpected metaphors (I particularly liked the brassy bubbles of sound from the dressing gong) but manages to avoid getting bogged down in long descriptive passages.
However, there are several reasons why I found it occassionally frustrating too. If like me, you don't know very much about the Irish Troubles in the 1920s, there's a lot of assumed knowledge in this book. Bowen, very deliberately, only ever suggests or lightly touches upon the political context of the book- I suppose reproducing the way her characters wilfully avoid thinking too deeply about the conceqences of the Anglo occupation of Ireland. While the sort of submerged sense of menace this creates might appeal to some, I really enjoy a thorough exploration of volatile political issues, and Bowen's continual dancing away from the elephant in the room just annoyed me.
The other thing I took issue with was the protagonist- Lois is very hard to get a firm grip on as a character. She's not very explicitly defined and you need to do a lot of reading between the lines. By the end, she seemed to come good, but for the majority of the book she seemed a bit empty and directionless and I found it very difficult to gather up much empathy for her.(less)
Despite being only 60-something pages, this is a curiously complex book with a lot of very fine detail jammed between its flyleaves. The quality of th...moreDespite being only 60-something pages, this is a curiously complex book with a lot of very fine detail jammed between its flyleaves. The quality of the prose is incredible, especially considering English was Conrad's third language, and layered with metaphors. The symbolism that runs through the narrative is so pervasive I suspect I could read this many times over and still be discovering new facets to Conrad's recreation of the Belgian Congo.
The narrative structure of the story is at times difficult, and I can understand how it might put some off. The reader 'hears' the story via an unnamed sailor, who listens to another sailor's, Marlow, reminiscences of his experiences in the Congo. Because the narrative is essentially a dictation of Marlow's tale, in the beginning there's a bit of slippage between the two narrators, and the ubiquitous speech marks around every paragraph can get confusing. It's a very similar structure to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which may not be mere coincidence, given the subject matter Conrad and Coleridge were both dealing with.
The themes Conrad develops in Heart of Darkness are, as the title suggests, bleak, violent and somewhat terrifying. The novella is largely informed by Conrad's personal experiences as captain of a steamer plying the Congo river and his horror at the atrocities perpetrated in the name of colonialism clearly shows through. As Marlow journeys deeper into the unmapped jungles of Africa, he descends deeper into the psyche of man and finds there brutality, greed and ultimately, one's fear of the savagery lurking within themselves.
And the preceding are all reasons why Conrad is considered one of the greatest writers in the English language- but I just can't bring myself to give this five stars because there are certain elements of the book which have not aged well and feel out of step with 21st century sentiments. Firstly, like many white men writing (even sympathetically) of black victims of colonisation, there seems to be a subtle but significant failure to recognise fellow humanity in the victims of colonialism. Secondly, there's a definite teleolgical agenda in Conrad's juxtaposition of the European 'civilisation' versus African 'savagery'. Chinua Achebe wrote about racism and Heart of Darkness far more eloquently than I, so if you're interested have a read of his essay An Image of Africa. Lastly, a few of Conrad's comments about women will raise feminists' eyebrows. Nevertheless, if you keep in mind the ways in which Heart of Darkness is quite an extraordinary book for its time, there's still a wealth to enjoy and ponder over.(less)
A Handful of Dust surprised me- a lot. For the first 3/4 of the book I found exactly what I was expecting: a witty British social satire in the same s...moreA Handful of Dust surprised me- a lot. For the first 3/4 of the book I found exactly what I was expecting: a witty British social satire in the same sort of tradition as Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, where most, if not all, of the characters are equally unlikable as one another. The last quarter of the book, however, takes off in quite an unexpected direction and leaves you with one of the best endings I've encountered in a novel. It takes a (sinister) genius to come up with something that eccentric and bizarre!(less)