Reviews: C

Review: “Poor Miss Finch” by Wilkie Collins [1872]

Wilkie Collins is a well known Sensation fiction writer, a genre that was very popular during the 1860s, and largely regarded as the ‘trashy’ novels by contemporaries. Poor Miss Finch is decidedly not a Sensation novel. I have to admit, I had expected this to be one, considering Collins’ reputation.

Instead, Miss Finch is a story about romance that surpasses boundaries and limitations. Narrated by Madame Pratolungo, a Frenchwoman who married a South American democracy activist, she records her time with Lucilla Finch. Left widowed by her husband’s untimely death, Madame Pratolungo accepts a job as a companion to Lucilla, a young woman in her early twenties who has been blind since she a was a year old. Madame Pratolungo moves to the isolated countryside where the Finches live, Lucilla in her own annex, and her father and step-family in the main house with the perpetually pregnant step-mother who is rarely seen without a suckling baby in her arms. The two women strike up a close friendship immediately. Lucilla admonishes Madame Pratolungo to never feel sorry for her blindness and demonstrates that her lack of sight is no barrier to her way of life and even an advantage:

She delighted in putting the room tidy late in the evening, when we helpless people who could see were beginning to think of lighting the candles … We were only allowed to light the candles when they showed us the room magically put in order during the darkness as if the fairies had done it. She laughed scornfully at our surprise, and said she sincerely pitied the poor useless people who could only see! – p. 89

Lucilla falls in love and becomes engaged to a newcomer, Oscar Dubourg, who also has an identical twin brother, Nugent, whose personality is the complete opposite to Oscar’s. During a robbery, Oscar is struck heavily on the head and begins to suffer from injury-induced epilepsy. Lucilla and Oscar postpone their wedding in hopes of Oscar would recover or have his epileptic fits reduce its intensity but to avail.

In desperation, Oscar tries the only known medication that has proven to control epilepsy in the small percentage of patients who dares to try it – Nitrate of Silver which has a horrible side affect. The medication turns the patient’s complexion blue. However, Lucilla has a strong aversion to all dark people, having lived in her own darkness all her life, and so this side affect is kept from her. The dilemma arises when Nugent introduces a well known German oculist to Lucilla who is given hope again that she may yet regain her sight allowing to finally see the face of the man she is marrying.

After the operation, Lucilla slowly regains her sight. Everybody is very nervous at how Lucilla will take Oscar but Nugent has other plans. He has fallen in love with Lucilla and, while she could tell the two brothers apart through touch alone when she was blind, she is ironically left defenseless when she only has her vision to rely on.

While Miss Finch has some very Wilkie Collins narrative devices (shady pasts, identity confusion, twins), it is a very different sort of story to his earlier novels. It is both an exploration of blindness and the senses but also the extent of love. Lucilla’s forward behaviour towards Oscar is deemed inappropriate by Madame Pratulungo:

‘I want to tell him how deeply I feel for him, and how anxious I am to make his life a happier one if i can.’

‘My dear Lucilla! you can’t say this to a young man. It is as good as telling him, in plain words, that you are fond of him!’

‘I am fond of him.’

‘Hush! hush! Keep it to yourself, until you are sure that he is fond of  you …’

‘That is very hard on the women. If they feel it first, they ought to own it first.’ – p. 60

The normal social constraints of propriety and the correct ways of how women and men interact do not affect Lucilla because she has never seen how others might look at her and having been used to her own imagination of the world. There are some very interesting aspects to how the blind lives and even more so of the consequences of what might happen when the blind regain their sight. Distinguishing between shapes and colours become very difficult and the world might not be as beautiful as they had imagined. The majority feels pity for the blind but as Lucilla, and Collins, show, accepting impairments that are beyond your control, whatever they may be, might just be the key to happiness.

Review: ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus

*WARNING – spoilers*

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.

The defining opening lines of this classic existentialist novella succinctly illustrates the state of Meursault’s mind. The mother is such an revered figure in our society that when a child does not know, or is so indifferent, towards their mother’s death, alarm bell rings in the reader’s mind that there is something odd about this man.

As the novella progresses, we see that Meursault is a unique man. He listens to his body and is highly attuned to its needs and wants. He feels like smoking so he’ll smoke. He wants to feel the fluidity of water so he’ll go for a swim. He feels like making love so he sleeps with a pretty girl who has been reacquainted with him the day after his mother’s funeral. There is no explanation for Meursault’s actions because there is none. He simply acts and is and there is nothing unauthentic about him. He rarely, if at all, thinks for the consequences and lives in the moment. This will be his downfall.

After a string of events, Mersault shoots dead an Arab on the beach. His defence is that the sun blinded and overpowered him. The magistrate is willing to accept Meursault’s reasoning except for the extra shots Meursault fired at the victim after it was apparent he was dead. Meursault cannot explain it.

The trial turns into somewhat of a farce as Meursault curiously examines the proceedings and watches the expressions of those present. Everybody has a front, an act. As the trial progresses, the court hears that Meursault did not properly demonstrate that he had mourned his mother but that he went swimming, saw a funny film and took a girl home. In the end, Meursault realises that he is on trial for not conforming to social norms and that he is on trial for not mourning his mother, firing the last shots into the dead victim and for his indifference towards the world. He realised the truth of the world, saw the world and society for what is was and saw that regardless of what he did, or how well he played the social game, everybody was eventually going to die and everything will disappear.

The Outsider is somewhat a desolate novella but it resonated with me. This was my first re-reading after working with it in Year 12 English and new things have struck me. Meursault will appear differently to every reader – some will view him as an unrepentant murderer, even mentally ill or somewhat heroic. I perceive him in the latter because it is incredibly brave for someone to refuse to conform. This is a terrific piece of work and writing, or my translation, is wonderful and fluid. The sentences are simple, short and staccato which helps ease readers into Meursault’s mind.

Review: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s & other short stories” by Truman Capote

It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rouge pink darkening in the cheeks … A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.” – p. 17.

Truman Capote’s classic masterpiece is narrated by an unknown writer. The only name he is ever associated with is ‘Fred’ which Holly Golightly christens him with. Sprightly and energetic, ‘Fred’ recalls the days of his relationship with Holly while they were neighbours living in downtown New York. Holly’s eccentricities intrigued the lonely and quiet writer and, together, they strike up a heartwarming but mismatched friendship. Holly, a prostitute, although it is never explicitly stated, and gold digger remains ambiguous and mysterious despite her verbose and flighty nature. Hints of physical abuse, and later sexual abuse, in her childhood are also insinuated. Her materialistic and occasionally insensitive nature is contrasted against her close bond with her absent beloved brother who is serving in the army and is intellectually slow.

This short story is truly amazing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been blown away by such deft and brilliant writing. In only 100 pages, Capote creates such vivid characters, voices, images and worlds. The character of Holly. although perhaps intended to be unlikable, is so well drawn by Capote who is careful to counteract her hardness with soft touches here and there.

This is truly an amazing piece of work – my mouth is still gaping. Aspects of it remind me also somewhat of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

I have been putting off writing a review for this because I felt I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I also came to the story as a complete novice since I’d never seen the movie either. All I knew about the tale was the black dress and pearls. Having seen the movie after reading the book, I can I much prefer the book although I did enjoy the movie.

The three other short stories in the same volume are also brilliant and really brings home Capote’s genius. Such slight stories in such varying environments they all capture the essence of the world it embodies. House of Flowers paints the life of a prostitute in the Caribbeans who leaves her position to marry. With a mix of mysticism and witchcraft weaved in, it is truly different from Tiffany’s. A Diamond Guitar depicts the life in an American prison farm with undertones of racism. Finally, A Christmas Memory is one of the most poignant and saddest stories I’ve read. It simply tells of the close bond relationship between a young boy and a very old woman.

Four such remarkable and different stories, all wonderfully told. The best $8 I’ve ever spent!

Review: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll

“Only mustard isn’t a bird,” Alice remarked.

“Right, as usual,” said the Duchess: “what a clear way you have of putting things!”

“It’s a mineral, I think,” said Alice.

“Of course it is,” said the Duchess, who seemed ready to agree to everything that Alice said: “there’s a large mustard-mine near here. And the moral of that is – ‘The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours.'” – p. 81

Alice follows a white rabbit down the rabbit hole one day and finds herself in a land where the animals speak, inanimate objects have come alive and where every living thing do not seem to possess any logic and speak in round-a-bout ways. Lewis Carroll creates a vivid and memorable cast and a series of adventures in the first and more well known novel of the Wonderland.

Alice is portrayed as a very precocious seven year-old, and who is the only one who is seemingly behaving in  logical fashion. As she travels deeper into the Wonderland she meets the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Cheshire cat, a long-winded caterpillar who smokes a hookah and have a penchant of poetry, the Red Queen’s ugly sister and the pig-baby and of course, the Red Queen and King themselves. Speaking in nonsense speech that goes around in circles, it strike me that it very much resembles the speeches of politicians and the bureaucracy.

Similar themes continues in the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass:

“Were you ever punished?”

“Only for faults,” said Alice.

“And you were all the better for it, I know!” the Queen said triumphantly.

“Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for,” said Alice: “that makes all the difference.”

“But if you hadn’t done them,” the Queen said, “that would have been better still…” – p. 176.

Does this dialogue and theory of punishment sound familiar?

Looking-Glass pales somewhat besides Wonderland. This time, Alice falls through a looking glass and into the world within it. She must make her way across a chessboard to reach the third square. Tweedledee and Tweedledum features in this novel  along with Humpty Dumpty, the red and white Queens and the re-emergence of the Mad Hatter. It is somewhat a more somber journey through the land of the Looking-Glass and it does not recreate the same air of frivolity and riddiculousness that was in Wonderland. The tone here is noticeably darker. Reading between the lines, parallels can be drawn between the gibberish that spills from the Wonderland characters and figures within our own world.

This was a re-read of Wonderland, having read it in high school and an abridged version as a child. It was, however, my first read of Looking-Glass and, I’m a little ashamed but also pleased to say, that I was inspired to read this due to the T.V. show Lost.

Review: “Hallowe’en Party” by Agatha Christie

‘A child boasts of having witnessed a murder. Only a few hours later, that child is dead. You must admit that there are grounds for believing that it might – it’s a far-fetched idea perhaps – but it might have been the cause and effect.

Another classic Agatha Christie mystery featuring the Belgium detective Hercule Poirot. Hallowe’en Party begins when a teenage girl is found murdered after a Halloween party, having drowned in a bucket. This becomes suspicious as the girl had previously boasted of having witnessed a murder when she was younger, and had only realised what she had seen when she was older, allowing a list of suspects to be formed. To pursue the list of suspects, the motive and to ascertain which murder the girl did witness, Poirot must delve into the village’s list of unsolved murders.

This was a terrific read and filled with gentle and uncontrived twist and turns. I very much appreciated Christie’s skill of drawing out minor characters. With such a large cast this would not have been easy.

There is something very comforting about Agatha Christie’s books despite it always about crime, murder and deceit. Her stories are familiar yet always suspenseful and new. I’m a huge fan but I’ve barely made a dent into her collection.

Review: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.

And so begins this enchanting and quiet tale of a young sheppard named Santiago, who throws himself out onto the world to fulfil his Personal Legend. Everybody has their own Personal Legend and it is the sheer simplicity of Coehlo’s philosophy that makes this idea so accessible and inspirational. Your Personal Legend stems is clear and accessible to you when you are child, where there are no doubts or worries of the world. Can you remember what you wanted to be when you were a child? Do you remember how you could not see why your goal cannot be unachievable? But as you grew up – that one goal that your heart desired – suddenly become so unreachable that you become afraid to try.

The Alchemist follows Santiago, who gives up all his limited possessions, to realise a recurring dream. Always dreaming to see far and distant land, Santiago leaves Spain and searches for the pyramids where he is told there is treasure. To get there, he first must pass through unknown land and cross an endless desert meeting strange characters along the way.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and the starkness and simplicity of Coehlo’s writing. Without overdosing on adjectives or character descriptions I got a great sense of who these characters were and I imagined their physical appearances in my head. I’m not a big reader (if at all) in spirituality, self-help or religious books but Coehlo manages to blend all three into this extremely quiet piece. The brilliance here is that it is done in an unassuming way and there is no preaching whatsoever. If this doesn’t sound enticing to you, this book is worth reading for Coehlo’s lovely settings in Spain, the middle East and the great deserts of Egypt.

So – continue to dream because there is a place within the world that awaits you.