Reviews: S

Review: “Miss Buncle’s Book” by D. E. Stevenson [1934]

Miss Buncle’s Book was one of the first titles I decided to purchase when I finally found the beloved Persephone store and was completely overwhelmed by the collection. I had to pick just three from all these delights? I picked Miss Buncle because, to be honest, it had the word ‘book’ in the title. What’s not to like? And I wasn’t let down. It is one of the most delightful and charming books I’ve read.

Barbara Buncle, an unasuming middle-aged spinster, has lived her whole life in the quiet little village, Silverstream. To make up for her ever decreasing dividends upon which her income depends on, however, Miss Buncle decides to write a book based on Silverstream because, as Miss Buncle chirps, she can only write about what she knows and she knows her little village and its inhabitants. To her surprise, her manuscript is accepted by a publisher who is bemused and a little flummoxed by the book and its author, ‘John Smith’:

It was not written by a genius, of course, neither was it the babblings of an imbecile; but the author of it was either a very clever man writing with his tongue in his cheek, or else a very simple person writing in all good faith. – p.8

The publisher, Mr. Abbott, upon meeting and instantly liking Miss Buncle decides to publish the book under the pseudonym but changes the original title from Chronicles of an English Village to the much more punchy Disturber of the Peace. Due to Miss Buncle’s slight lack of imagination, the book is a very thinly veiled characterisation of Silverstream, known in the book as Copperfield. Miss Buncle did let her imagination fly though towards the end of the book where she imagines the futures for her ‘characters’ which includes an illicit affair or two and an unlikely couple heading off into the sunset to Samarkand.

To everybody’s surprise, the book becomes a bestseller but the book’s popularity finds its way quickly to Silverstream where its residents quickly realise their printed twins. Some residents are shocked at their portrayal in the book which Barbara had faithfully reconstructed, perhaps a little clearly. An angry mob of Silverstream residents group together and demand the book be pulled out of circulation and that John Smith show himself. While all the hoopla is happening, nobody suspects the quiet and unassuming Miss Buncle who is happily taking down notes for a sequel. However, with the townspeople breathing down Miss Buncle’s neck and narrowing down their list of suspects, both Miss Buncle and Mr. Abbott realise that the Copperfield stories will end once the sequel is published because that will finally reveal ‘John Smith’.

While I’ve probably just made this sound like somewhat of a thriller read, it is not. It is a charming and gentle read, satirical and very tongue-in-cheek. Periodically, particularly in the beginning, I was reminded of Elizabeth Gaskell’s gentle Cranford. As the book progressed, it began to feel quite weird because it felt like I was reading the book that Miss Buncle had written, a little Calvino-esque. My suspicions were confirmed when Mr. Abbott thought similarly too:

The theme was unusual and intriguing. Mr. Abbott had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a novel who wrote a novel – it was like a recurring decimal, he thought, or perhaps even more like a perspective of mirrors such as tailors use, in which the woman and her novel were reflected back and forth to infinity. – p. 295

The quiet, dowdy and self-sufficient Miss Buncle is an unlikely heroine. She is alone but is never pitied nor pitiful. She remains true to herself and becomes a rather inspiring figure.

The book is a wonderful read and I can why fans have been clamouring for its sequel, Miss Buncle’s Married, which Persephone has kindly obliged. The sequel title gives the story  line away a little though. 🙂


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Review: “Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre [1938]; translated from French by Robert Baldick [1963]

Nausea. Simply hearing the title and author make many shiver with trepidation. It’s even more difficult to review!

Nausea is the published (fictionally) diary of writer Antoine Roquentin and it appears to have been published posthumously. It begins with Roquentin beginning his diary and vowing to record things down as they appear. In diary’s preface, it appears that Roquentin has returned to France after many years of travelling. His first proper entry is Roquentin’s description of his first experience of what he labels as ‘nausea’:

Something has happened to me: I can’t doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all … and now it has started blossoming. – p. 13

A change has occurred in Roquentin and has altered the way he perceives the world. Every little thing is just that little bit more different, a little bit more absurd and senseless. Everything in Roquentin’s world becomes superfluous. As he struggles through the daily motions of researching in the Bouville library, his encounters with the people he regularly sees there and his musings on his long, lost love Anny, Roquentin becomes even more unhappy trying to live in the now:

I build my memories with my present. I am rejected, abandoned in the present. I try in vain to rejoin the past: I cannot escape from myself. – p. 53

Roquentin realises that he was much happier before this nausea, before his new perception of the world he lives in. Perhaps it’s another aspect of the idea that ignorance may indeed be bliss. But the real question that haunts Roqeuntin is what does it mean to exist?

My thought is ‘me’: that is why I can’t stop. I exist by what I think … and I can’t prevent myself from thinking. – p. 145

The paradox and contradictory terms of existence makes itself known to Roquentin as he slowly examines the ideas of existence and arrives at various, however futile, theories of how Roquentin might live out his life.

The crux of Sartre’s existentialist theory (theories) is that a being is essentially free but when one realises that they are entirely free (arguably – but let’s not get into that right now), the sense and responsibility of the freedom is overwhelming.

This is a rather short and blunt review but it is quite difficult to review this novel because of all the aspects and details. I had no trouble reading this but while I struggled at times with the theoretical subtext of Nausea, I usually just let it wash over me while I read the book. The novel is very enjoyable and it’s a marvellous read if only for the story. The writing is simply beautiful and often quite poetic. I think the readability of Sartre’s novels is very underrated. I remember being so amazed at how much fun I had reading The Age of Reason. Don’t let it intimidate you and simply enjoy the ride.

Review: “A Town Like Alice” by Nevil Shute [1950]

A Town Like Alice is a tale of an ordinary woman’s extraordinary life in the face of various hardships. Jean Paget, a British woman working as a typist at a shoe and handbag manufacturer is twenty-seven years old when she inherits a nice little fortune from a long forgotten great-uncle. In his will, and due to his low regard for a woman’s ability to look after her own finances, the great-uncle stipulated that Jean may not have full access to her fortune until she is thirty-five years old and his lawyer, Noel Strachan, is to act as a trustee. Ironically, Jean is not a typical flighty woman as Strachan discovers when she tells him her experience of  WWII.

Before the outbreak of war, Jean worked as a typist for a British company in Kuala Lumpur and decides to stay during the war. When the Japanese suddenly invades Malaya (Malaysia) Jean is taken prisoner along with thirty other white women while their husbands are herded off to Singapore or a prison camp. When the Japanese realise that the women, which includes children and a baby, cannot stay where they are, they are shepherded to and from different towns, made to walk in the the unforgiving conditions with no end in sight.

“People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had,” she said quietly, staring into the embers. “They don’t know what it was like, not being in a camp.” – p. 56

As it becomes clear to the women that the Japanese had no camp or plans for the women except to march them to death, the women, with Jean as the de facto leader, struggles to survive. Jean, quick to adapt and already familiar with the Malay ways and fluent in the language, quickly sheds her ‘white woman’ persona and dresses and acts as a native to physically survive, dressing in sarongs and walking in bare feet. The remaining women also soon follow suit. Along one of these marches, they come across two Australian men, who are also prisoners. Both parties are surprised to see each other, particularly the men when they see how the women have changed.

“Which of you speak English?”

Jean said, laughing, “We’re all English.”

He stared at her, noting the black hair plaited in a pigtail, the brown arms and feet, the sarong, the brown baby on her hip. There was a line of white skin showing on her chest at the V of her tattered blouse. – p. 67

Angry at the treatment of the women, the men try to help them. Jean instantly bonds with one of the men, Joe Harman, who tells her about his life as a stockman in Alice Springs and who nicknames her Mrs. Boong for her appearance. When Joe steals some prized chickens from a Japanese general, who is later convicted and hung for war crimes, he brutally punished. He is crucified, with his hands nailed to a tree, and whipped. The women are moved on and believe he is dead. They later find refuge with a kind tribesman and is given permission to stay with the small village and accepts Jean’s idea of working in the rice fields. They would stay there for the next three years until the end of war.

The second part of the novel follows Jean as she attempts to find a life for herself after she is repatriated. When she inherits the money, she returns to the village in Malaya that had sheltered the women and builds them a well so the women would no longer have to carry heavy barrels of water on a long trek. It is while she is talking to the well diggers that she finds out that Joe Harman did not die and is still alive and so she sets off to Australia and tracks him down. While she waits for Joe in Willstown, a run down, small town in the outback, Jean begins to think of some business plans in order to help the town – to find jobs for girls, who are leaving in droves to work in the city, which will attract men and which will increase the economy. Fate plays with the couple for a little while but when Jean and Joe are finally reunited, it is sweet:

He had been looking for a stranger, but it was unbelievable to him that this smart, pretty girl in a light summer frock was the tragic, ragged figure that he had last seen on the road in Malaya, sunburnt, dirty, bullied by the Japanese soldiers, with blood upon her face where they had hit her, with blood upon her feet. Then he saw a characteristic  turn of her head and memories can flooding back to him; it was Mrs. Boong again, the Mrs. Boong he had remembered all those years. – p. 183

Once they are reunited, they don’t get their happily ever after immediately but they have to wait while Jean tries her hand at opening up some businesses to give her something to do, if she was going to live in the desolate town with Joe, and to help transform Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, which was then a booming place in the outback, with her inheritance.

Alice was a terrific read, somewhat to my surprise, and almost reads like two different stories. I had expected the typical war romance sort of book but this was something very different. Jean is a terrific character and heroine and it was more often than not that I kept thinking that she was rather similar to one Jane Eyre – plain, alone and who make their own way into the world. What I loved was the display of understanding and respect from Jean, and Shute as a writer, of cultural differences and customs. It was largely due to Jean’s respect to customs to the Japanese soldiers and Malay tribespeople that allowed the women to survive. I also loved how when Jean finally married Joe, despite all the time they had lost and what it took for them to find each other again, it was on her own terms.

Review: “Maigret in Court” by Georges Simenon [1960]; translated from French by Robert Brain [1961]

I had never heard of Georges Simenon or of Maigret (which I keep reading as Marguerite) until I pulled this rather eye-catching book from a library shelf. Simenon and Maigret are apparently quite popular and a staple in Europe and Maigret features in a long running series.

Jules Maigret is the Chief Inspector of Paris. He is in his mid-fifties and two years off from retirement. He approaches his cases wisely and intelligently and easily shows his expertise as the top cop. Despite being toughened up through his long career and experiences, Maigret possesses great integrity and compassion. Maigret in Court opens with the trial of Gaston Meurant who is accused to have murdered his aunt and a young girl in her care with the motive of stealing his aunt’s money, which were pieces of gold, that she kept stored in a vase in her apartment. When Maigret takes the stand and relays the case, he realises how disenchanted he has become with the court system.

They had suddenly been plunged into a depersonalised world where everyday phrases seemed no longer to be current, where the most commonplace actions were translated into cut-and-dried formulas. The judges’ black robes, the ermine, the red gown of the advocate-general further increased this feeling or some ceremony with changeless ritual, where the individual counted for nothing. – p. 20

Maigret thinks that the evidence doesn’t add up and believes that Meurant is innocent. While on the stand, Maigret reveals more details of the case that was previously unknown and it completely changes the trajectory of the trial.

The second half of the story follows the attempt of Maigret to find the real murderer to prove Meurant’s innocence and what transpires are some good old-fashioned sleuthing around Paris and France.

This novella was a very interesting read. It was little difficult to get into at the beginning but I soon became engrossed in it. Many aspects of the first part of the story, during the trial, was really reminiscent of Albert Camus’ The Outsider: the hot, repressive court room and, more significantly, the disenchantment and the alienation of the individuals within the legal proceedings. It’s fascinating that it can be so relevant in our society today:

Was not everything distorted there? Not through any fault of the judges, the jury, the witnesses, nor on account of the criminal code or the procedure, but because human beings were suddenly reduced, if one can so put it, to a few words, a few sentences. – p. 49

The second part of the story reminded me somewhat of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and his detective Philip Marlowe. A great read and a great find!

Review: “The Age of Reason” by Jean-Paul Sartre [1945]; translated from French by Eric Sutton [1947]

I am going to be brave and review Sartre.

Set in Paris on the eve of WWII, during a summer heat wave in 1938, the story follows Mathieu Delarue, a philosophy professor, over two days. Over the course of these two days, Mathieu is trying to procure four thousand francs for a safe abortion for his mistress, Marcel. As Mathieu tries to raise the money through family and friends, he reassesses his life, its meaning and the beliefs he has followed.

Along the way, we meet his circle of acquaintances. We meet Daniel who, out of spite and with curiousity to see Matheiu’s downfall, to see him lose his freedom, lies that he doesn’t have the money. He also plays the go-between between Matheiu and Marcel, who secretly desires the baby. There is Jacques, Mathieu’s older, successful and stable brother who refuses to lend the money to Mathieu but instead, offers him ten thousand francs to marry Marcel. Jacques tells Matheiu:

You are thirty-four years old … your youth has gone, and the bohemian life doesn’t suit you at all. Besides, what is bohemianism, after all? It was amusing enough a hundred years ago, but today it is simply a name for a handful of eccentrics who are no danger to anybody, and have missed the train. You have attained the age of reason, Matheiu, you have attained the age of reason, or you ought to have done so. – p. 108

Mathieu replies that “your age of reason is the age of resignation, and I’ve no use for it”. But his brother’s words has struck something in Matheiu who, for all his life, has believed he could remain free, with personal and sexual freedom, and free to live his life any way he chose without consequences. To attain the age of reason would mean that Matheiu would lost his freedom.

As the day progresses, he meets up with Ivich, the beautiful but cold sister of one of his favourite pupils and friend, Boris. Matheiu is attracted to Ivich but it is not reciprocated. While Ivich is anxiously waiting for her exam results, fearful that if she fails once more she would have to return to her parents in the country, Mathieu tries his best to distract her by taking her to galleries as part of his attempt to teach her to appreciate culture and art.

The novel explores the idea of existentialist freedom and what it means to be free – free from responsibilities, free from expectations and conformity, free from material attachments. Or is the idea of freedom, whatever it may mean to each individual, merely an abstract thought and may not even exist?

The book was a beautiful and, surprisingly, a very accessible read. This is my first attempt to read Sartre after being highly intimidated. There is bound to be comparisons, but Sartre’s writing (or the translation) is highly reminiscent of de Beauvoir’s. There is one striking similarity in the form of Ivich who resembles Xaviere. Must both Sartre and de Beauvoir write such detestable female characters? Apparently, according to wikipedia (…), both Ivich and Xaviere are based on the same woman in Sartre and de Beauvoir’s menage-a-trois. Nevertheless, this is truly a wonderful and enlightening read and provides many points to ponder over. At times, Sartre’s writing is almost poetic and there were many pages that I’d marked. But my most favourite passage of all is this.

The Age of Reason is the first of the The Roads to Freedom trilogy. The next two in the series are The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul or Troubled Sleep.

Review: “The Almost Moon” by Alice Sebold [2007]

* Minor spoilers.

Alice Sebold certainly has a knack for writing arresting and captivating first sentences:

When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.

The novel opens with Helen Knightly finally breaking down under the stress of looking after her invalid and elderly mother and suffocates her. The murder is an uncomfortable hybrid of a mercy killing of a diseased riddled body and also out of spite against a cold and loveless mother. After the murder, Helen is filled with guilt and remorse but also relief. As Helen tries to comprehend what she has done and its consequences, she also revisits her childhood having grown up in a rather dysfunctional household.

As an only child born to a mature couple, Helen’s presence is more of an interruption than a welcomed addition to the lovers. As the reminiscences progresses, we find the fraught position Helen is in. Her mother, a severe agoraphobic for almost all of Helen’s life and who lived her life completely housebound, could not leave her house to even save a dying boy in her front yard or to protect her only child from an angry mob of men from assault. Her father, with the veneer of a loving and stable father and husband slowly crumbles from the weight of depression which tragically ends when he shoots himself in the head and Helen is forced to clean up his blood at her mother’s insistence.

The novel is ultimately not about the murder but a study of the complex relationship between parent and child, mother and daughter. Helen herself have two daughters and must now face up that her action has changed all their lives. It is also about mental illness and the way it has been, how it is, misunderstood or incomprehensible.

Some reviews of this book has been less than complimentary. As a stand-alone novel, I liked it but when it is compared with Sebold’s earlier two novels, while The Almost Moon does not measure up it is still a remarkable read.

Review: “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

With such an arresting opening sentence like this, how could one resist this story? The Lovely Bones tells the story of the young girl, on the cusp of puberty, who is violently murdered and disposed of. Susie tells us her story from the Inbetween, a place between Heaven and Earth. The Inbetween is Susie’s own particular heaven that she periodically shares with others. It is from her heaven that Susie, unable to let go of her life on earth, watches over her family and the impact of her death playing out.

As Susie watches her family come to terms with her death in their own way, she is also watching her murderer. Despite its premises, it isn’t a typical crime fiction or thriller that Sebold writes but one about life and what it means to be human. The Salmon family was a close knit, average suburban family with loving parents, three kids and a dog. It is through Susie’s narrative that we find out more about her through her family.

The narrative is amazing. It manages to weave in the past, current and future seamlessly. Susie’s narrative is also remarkable in that she begins her story in a somewhat childish voice but as the novel progresses, her narration becomes much more mature, insightful and understanding. It is as if Susie has aged in heaven while forever remaining a fourteen year old girl trapped in pre-pubescent body. Without spite but with some sadness, Susie watches her younger siblings grow up and her younger sister do the things she would never be able to do – fall in love, go to high school, shave her legs , chase the dog or hug her father.

One of the most moving passages in book is when the faithful family dog, Holiday, finally passes on and arrives in Susie’s heaven:

I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.

The movement of time is seamless and the death of the long serving family dog is a nice little token. Towards the end of the book, Susie realises that her family is finally ready to slowly move on after almost a decade of unanswered answers. And Susie is too and is thankful for the love of her family, that she was beloved. The lovely bones, aside from alluding to her body, also refers to the bones of a beloved family; the strong bones that a family shares.

On a personal note, I first read this when it first came out in 2002 and this is the only re-read I’ve done of it since. I remember being sad but not wholly affected with the book. With more life experience and insight under my belt, the book is remarkably more profound. I am not a soppy reader but I found myself tearing throughout the book.

Alice Sebold is the most wonderful and fluid writer. Reading her work is effortless and her writing remains in your head after you have closed the book.