book review

Review: “The Small Hand: A Ghost Story” by Susan Hill [2010]

I’ve been going on a Susan-Hill-ghost-story splurge that began a few months ago with The Woman in Black (although I didn’t blog about). I followed that up with The Man in the Picture which was another quick, thrilling read. Her horror novels sends just the right amount of tingles up your spine and conjures the right atmosphere in the shortest of time frames because her three spooky novels are quite short.

In The Small Hand, antiquarian book dealer Adam Snow becomes lost after leaving a client’s house in the countryside. He comes across a deserted estate with the most marvellous overgrown garden and is unable to resist the urge to explore it. The house, Adam later learns, is called ‘The White House’ and it was once famous for its gardens. Adam wanders through the gardens in the twilight, he pauses to stare at the derelict house:

And as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there, and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. – p. 7

Adam is driven to find out all he can about The White House and the ghostly hand does not frighten him until it suddenly become malevolent, particularly around water such as ponds and lakes.

Now the small hand was tightening in mine and I felt the dreadful pull I had experienced before to throw myself forward into the water. I could not look at the child’s face, because I knew that I would be unable to refuse what he wanted. His expression was one of such longing and need that I could never hold out against him. – p. 78

As the mystery surrounding the identity of the boy and what had happened to him all those years ago to cause the sudden abandonment of the White House deepens, Adam becomes unsure if he is losing his mind, like his older brother once did, and have been imagining the events.

This is a terrific book to read in one sitting. I particularly loved the bookish elements thrown into the spooky mixture where Adam travels to an isolated monastery in France where there is a beautiful library housing a first edition of Shakespeare’s Folio.

Lessons learned:

1) Never wander around deserted and derelict mansions with overgrown gardens while lost in the countryside at dusk.

2) Never squeeze back a ghostly hand, no matter how small or seemingly innocent.

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Review: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte [1847]

I first read this when I was eighteen for one of my university classes. I read it really, really fast and I remember that I was quite bewildered by it. Was this the same story of the passionate ‘romance’ between Heathcliff and Cathy? Romance might have been the wrong term. The second re-reading brought up so many more layers and aspects to the novel that I didn’t see before.

Set in the isolated Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights begins with Mr. Lockwood, a Londoner who have leased Thrushcross Grange to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Lockwood comes across Wuthering Heights and is met by the rude and grimacing inhabitants of the household – Heathcliff, Catherine and Hareton along with the two grumbling servants Joseph, a religious old man, and Zillah the housemaid. When a severe snowstorm forces Lockwood to insist on staying the night at Wuthering Heights, much to the reluctance of the inhabitants who are indifferent to the safety of Lockwood, Zillah allows Lockwood to quietly stay in one of the old rooms upstairs. Lockwood finds variations of the name ‘Catherine’ scratched upon the window sill – Catherine Linton, Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Heathcliff – and during the night Lockwood has a nightmare about a ghostly Catherine who begs him to let her in.

Once settled at Thrushcross Grange, Lockwood is told the entire story of the two doomed families who once resided in the two estates by the maid, Ellen Dean, who grew up and served at Wuthering Heights with Cathy and Heathcliff and later at the Grange. She recalls the night the elderly Mr. Earnshaw brought back an orphan he had found on the streets of London whom he later christens Heathcliff and who quickly becomes Mr. Earnshaw’s favourite. This brings friction into the household particularly between Hindley, Cathy’s elder brother, while the short-tempered Cathy and Heathcliff quickly form a passionate and fiery bond which continues into their teenage years and, really, for the rest of their lives.

During one of their ramblings on the moors, Heathcliff and Cathy come across Thrushcross Grange where Cathy in bitten by the family dog when the two are caught spying and sneaking. While she is on the mend at the Linton’s, Cathy is transformed and influenced by the Linton’s gentility. Separated from Heathcliff for the first time, Cathy realises she wants what Heathcliff could never give her while Edgar Linton can: a title and respectability. Despite the realisation, Cathy refuses to admit that she must give up Heathcliff:

‘He quite deserted! we separated!’ she exclaimed, with an accent of indignation. ‘Who is to separate us, pray? They’ll meet the fate of Milo! Not as long as I live, Ellen – for no mortal creature. Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff. Oh, that’s not what I intend – that’s not what I mean! I shouldn’t be Mrs. Linton were such a price demanded! … Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but, did it never strike you that, if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars? whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and place him out of my brother’s power.’

‘With your husband’s money, Miss Catherine?’ I asked. ‘You’ll find him not so pliable as you calculate upon: and, though I’m hardly a judge, I think that’s the worst motive you’ve given yet for being the wife of young Linton.’ – p. 82

Heathcliff overhears most of the exchange between Cathy and Ellen and leaves Wuthering Heights, returning suddenly several years later a more confident and wealthier man with only revenge set in his mind against the Lintons and Hindley. Meanwhile, Cathy has married Edgar and is the restless mistress of Thrushcross Grange who becomes torn between her husband and Heathcliff when he returns, driving herself to sickness and madness. Cathy dies an untimely death leaving Heathcliff in anguish and despair, crying out one of the most romantic and passionate monologues I’ve ever read:

‘May she wake in torment! he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning  in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there – not in heaven – not perished – where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer – I repeat it till my tongue stiffens – Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannnot live without my life. I cannot live without my soul!’ – p. 169

Despite his almost psychotic passion towards Cathy, Heathcliff holds no mercy for the second generation of the Lintons and Earnshaws including Cathy’s own daughter, Catherine, and carries on his plan for revenge.

Throughout the story, I found almost all the characters unlikeable – Cathy hot-headed and selfish and Heathcliff brutish, violent and misanthropic. Each had very few redeeming qualities. The whole area of Wuthering Heighs and Thrushcross Grange is so isolated that we don’t hear about or from anybody from the outside except Mr. Lockwood. It is such an insular community and the slightly incestuous relationships between the two families that it made me ask who did Cathy want to impress by marrying Edgar and gaining a title?

The second reading of Wuthering Heights was well worth it. Joseph ‘s Yorkshire accent still frustrated me because of the constant flipping back and forth for the translation but it was only for a small portion. With such unusual characters (and names) and such an unconventional passionate relationship, it leaves you slightly boggled. I wonder if Emily Bronte ever experienced such a passionate and brutish relationship.

Review: “Light Boxes” by Shane Jones [2009]

Originally published in Baltimore, USA in 2009 with an original print run of 500, it quickly gained notoriety through word of mouth and the underground. Penguin then purchased the rights and republished it under their imprint Hamish Hamilton and that’s how one copy landed in my hands all the way down in Australia.

In Light Boxes, February is punishing the townspeople and it has frozen the season for more than 300 days and counting. The townspeople have suffered through a never ending onslaught of snow and ice. Flight has also been banned and the sky is empty. Theddeus, Selah and their daughter Bianca try to keep their spirits up. Theddeus have drawn balloons on Bianca’s arms to inspire them all that they will one day fly again in their hot air balloons and their kites.

Every night, Selah makes a concoction overpowering with mint to repel February and to keep their family safe. Children have begun to disappear with increasing frequency. Some townspeople, calling themselves The Solution, are waging a war against February. They wear masks of birds as disguises. Theddeus joins in the war effort although their efforts do minimal damage to the all mighty February. One night, Bianca disappears from her bedroom with only the scent of smoke and honey lingering and Selah is overcome with grief. When Theddeus attempts to exact revenge and goes to find February in his house at the edge of the woods, the mystery of February deepens.

This book, while short in length, is difficult to describe. It’s a play, an experiment on the traditional book form and prose but the storytelling is equally as effective. Light Boxes is enchanting, whimsical and rather brutal in some parts. The idea of February (aligned with the Northern Hemisphere seasons) dominating the townsfolk can also connote depression or seasonal mental disorders as suggested by this (one of many) great little list in the novel:

Lists of Artists Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try and Cure Bouts of Sadness:

1. Italo Calvino

2. Garcia Marquez

3. Jim Henson and Jorge Borges – Labyrinth (s)

4. The creator of Myspace

5. Richard Brautigan

6. J.K. Rowling

7. The inventor of the Children’s toy Lite-Brite

8. D.A. Levy

9. David Foster Wallace

10. Gauguin and the Caribbean

11. Charles Schulz

12. Liam Rector

– p. 98

I’m not sure how accurate this list is but I do know J.K. Rowling did suffer depression.

Light Boxes was a unique, delightful and highly satisfying read not to mention that the cover is gorgeous. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.

Review: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro [2005]

*There are spoilers in the review.

What begins as a seemingly naive story about the character’s childhood and teenage years at a boarding school slowly reveals its quite horrifying, but not unbelievable, truth about the characters. Set in the late 1990s*, Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy H., a thirty-one year old carer, who reminisces about her school years at Hailsham. In the beginning, Kathy tells us that she recently came back into contact with Ruth, her childhood best friend, when Kathy became Ruth’s carer after her first donation. Take these terms as you understand them and try not to think about them too much. Their true meaning will be eventually revealed.

Kathy remembers her time at Hailsham with Ruth and Tommy. The three were good friends and have seemingly grown up together. There is the typical playground politics between the students. Kathy and Ruth’s friendship is fraught with those moments of who has the upper hand with Ruth, and her rather brash and strong personality, always coming out on top. At Hailsham, the students learned the usual subjects while there is particular emphasis on art. Art was the most important subject and students’ reputation was defined by their artistic skills. Each month, a woman known as Madame would come into the school and pick out the best art to take away with her to hang in her rumoured gallery. The students were never told where their art were taken to.

In their last years at Hailsham, the students were given classes on what was to be expected out in the real world once they leave Hailsham and here the truth about the students slowly become clearer. During a class, one of the more liberal teachers, Miss Lucy, explained to them that they are not like everybody else:

‘You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way … Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.’ – p. 80

The truth is out but it seems that all the students somehow knew it already. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy leave Hailsham and go to the Cottages where they reside until they decide they are ready to start their training as carers.

The relationship between the trio becomes somewhat like a love triangle. Ruth and Tommy are dating but Tommy and Kathy are more compatible. The friendship between Ruth and Kathy, while it seems extremely tight knit, tension always seems to be simmering underneath and it is really a quite toxic friendship. Ruth is quite unlikeable. The trio disintegrate after one quite explosive afternoon and Kathy doesn’t see Ruth and Tommy again until she becomes Ruth’s carer.

As realistically Ishiguro wrote the tempestuous adolescent relationships, I was much more fascinated and struck by the whole ethical concept of organ donation and what Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are. They are, in fact, clones of other people. These characters, people, were designed to be walking and living organ farms and that was their sole purpose in ‘life’. Once they were called up to start donating, they don’t stop until they ‘complete’. In other words, they donate their organs until there is nothing left or their body can no longer sustain the operations.  Those that survive to their fourth donation are treated like rock stars. The likes of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy frightened the rest of the population. Many believed they had no souls and were simply empty beings which is why art played such an important role because it demonstrated that was something ‘human’ within. While Kathy showed that they had feelings, temptations, and dreams just like every other natural person, I felt, and I’m assuming Ishiguro intended it as such, that something was lacking in Kathy’s narrative. It was all somewhat flat.

Never Let Me Go is a very unique read and raises so many relevant questions. The characters are all brilliant although I really did despise Ruth and wanted to smack her in the head. One pressing question is why the powers that be, whoever it was that looked after all these clones, weren’t afraid that they would hurt themselves either by getting into a car accident or by suicide if they were really resentful. None of the donors expressed resentment at being forced to donate, that their lives is absolutely meaningless and that it was never their own. Of course, the easy answer would be that they were designed that way. The human factor in clones and sustainable organ donation – this leaves you lots to think about.

* Alternate 1990s, of course.

Review: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett [1911]

There’s something so wonderfully mature about this children’s classic. The Secret Garden begins with Mary Lennox, an unwanted and isolated ten year-old living in colonial India. Her mother, a beautiful and graceful woman, is much more concerned about parties and society than about her sullen, sickly child. Left alone almost all her life with her Indian servants, Mary grows to be a spoiled and snobbish girl who has come to expect that everything much be done for her. When an epidemic of cholera wipes out most of the village including her parents, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle.

In England, Mary lives at Misselthwaite, a relatively secluded rambling estate on the Yorkshire moors. With the no-nonsense attitude of the servants, Mary soon learns that her usual behaviour will not do at Misselthwaite and that she must learn to be independent.

“Are you going to be my servant?” Mary asked, still in her imperious little Indian way.

Martha began to rub her grate again. “I’m Mrs. Medlock’s servant,” she said stoutly … “but you won’t much waitin’ on.”

“Who is going to dress me?” demanded Mary.

Martha sat up on her heels again and stared. She spoke in broad Yorkshire in her amazement.

“Canna’ tha’ dress thysen!” she said.

“No,” answered Mary, quite indignantly. “I never did in my life. My Ayah dressed me, of course.” – p. 25.

Mary eventually warms to Martha and they become friends. While Martha works, Mary explores the manor’s vast gardens displaying a surprising affinity to nature and wildlife. While she is free to wander the grounds as she pleases, Mary soon finds out about a secret garden that has been locked up for the last ten years after the devastating death of her aunt who had loved the garden.

During one violent storm, and strong winds circling the house making the noise known as ‘wuthering’, Mary hears somebody cry. Everybody denies there is anybody else in the house but Mary hears the cries again in the next few days and goes exploring. She finds Colin, her sickly, spoiled cousin, with a temper as bad as Mary’s when she first arrived. Colin has been isolated in his room ever since his mother died in childbirth. As a sickly child, Colin was expected to die but he clung on to life and for the last ten years, everybody, including Colin himself, has been waiting for his death. To the servants’ surprise, Mary and Colin enjoy each other’s company and together with Dickon, Martha’s good willed, nature loving brother, they set out to find and restore the secret garden and in doing so, effectively restore and regenerate themselves.

One of the most loveliest thing about reading this is seeing the growth of Mary and Colin under their own direction. Both sickly, bad tempered and spoiled when we first meet them they mature into healthy and empathetic children. Mary develops an endearing quality when she attempts to speak Yorkshire to Dickon and Martha to their amazement. With minimal help from the adults, both Mary and especially Colin uses the garden and positive thinking to transform themselves. It is also interesting to read the colonial undertones. Mary is made better by the fresh, wholesome Yorkshire wind and her ramblings along the moors with the wind blowing away the sickly heat and humidity Mary acquired in an ‘unnatural’ land. There is really nothing better than retuning or finding one’s home.

Review: “Beautiful For Ever” by Helen Rappaport [2010]

In Victorian England, the use of cosmetics was taboo. It was perceived as evil and corrupt and not dissimilar from witchcraft and sorcery with innocent men as victims. Beautiful For Ever details the career of the controversial and almost mythical figure of Madame Rachel: cosmetician, con artist and almost likely, a procuress of prostitutes. Madame Rachel, whose real name was Rachel Leverson or Levison, was an astute entrepreneur with a keen eye for business, rising from poverty to creating one of the most infamous businesses in Victorian society. Although illiterate, Rachel made sure her children had the best education she could afford to give them and who would in turn help her in her deceptions.

Once Rachel Leverson established herself in a small shop on expensive and reputable Bond St, she changed her name to more exotic ‘Madame Rachel’. Her products, face washes, soaps, creams, cosmetics and special baths, were sold and promoted under a guise of similarly exotic ideas:

The catalogue abdounded in exotic potions such as Rachel’s now much-hyped Magnetic Rock Dew Water for Removing Wrinkles and her extensively advertised Circassian Golden Hair Wash. Madame’s Royal Arabian Face Cream and Honey of Mount Hymettus soap worked wonders too; as did her ‘Arab Bloom’ and ‘Favourite of the Harem’s Pearl White’ face powders – not to mention a whole range of fumigated oils, gums, scents and essences of perfumes and herbs from the most exotic and far flung places. – p. 76

These ‘exotic’ potions promised to make women ‘beautiful for ever’ and in a society obsessed with the women’s marriageability, anything must be done to enhance a girl’s physical attributes. To encourage the myth of Madame Rachel, she told her many wealthy customers that she was actually several decades older than she looked and it was due to her potions.

The business of Madame Rachel proved very successful for awhile and even opening up a branch in Paris and Rachel’s wealth grew enough to send her children to the best schools there. With so much cheating and conning with the products, the consequences soon found Rachel . Many wealthy women, duped and coerced by Rachel’s sales tactics, quickly lost a small fortune and many amassed a debt. This grew messy because the women hid their visits from their husbands. The women, almost all who held high standing and reputations in society, feared their visits to Madame Rachel would become known and Rachel held this to her advantage.

For those who have read Sensation Fiction, Madame Rachel appears in two (the two that I know of) of the popular titles: in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, Madame Oldershaw is a weak caricature of Madame Rachel. The infamous ‘Beautiful For Ever’ catalogue briefly appears in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret.

Helen Rappaport writes a very readable biography of the infamous Madame Rachel and I believe this is one of the few books available on Rachel Leverson. While it’s incredibly readable, I’m not sure if it’s suitable for academic research even though Rappaport does back her study up and it is very well researched. Reading this, I couldn’t help but compare the rather harmless procedures (of course, discounting the use of poisonous minerals such as arsenic and lead!) the women used to enhance, or completely alter, their beauty with the procedures we do today: body sculpting, liposuction, breast implants, nose jobs, face lifts, botox, scrubs, facials,  wraps, spas, etc. What is real and what is fake? What is real beauty? And of course, we all buy numerous amounts of creams, lotions, cleansers, exfoliators, perfumes, lipsticks, foundation, eyeshadows with promising tag lines.

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.