Review – The House on the Strand

Cover of The House on the Strand by Daphne du MaurierThe House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier
Originally reviewed 9th August, 2012

I don’t know why I’ve always been reluctant about reading Daphne du Maurier’s work: I don’t know what I thought it was going to be like, because both this and Rebecca were atmospheric and intriguing. Slower than your average thrillers maybe, but I do think there’s something in them that captures the mind. A little patience works wonders.

The narrator’s background contempt for Vita, not fully realised by himself, is both well written and discomforting: the hints at the end that it could have been all in his mind are interesting — it seems almost a cliché looking at it that way, but it read well here, and oh, the ending.

I got into the medieval story than the modern one; like the narrator I found it more real, full of passion and life — which really, I suppose, shows it to be a fiction, or at least that the narrator experiences it in the episodic manner of fiction, while his real life remains unsatisfactory. Like the narrator I’m glad to have experienced Roger and Isolda’s stories. And I can understand the draw of them for the protagonist, and how prepared he is to throw what he has away to see them, to know them.

I’m half wishing I was writing the dissertation on time travel we all joked about in the first semester of my MA. It’d give me an excuse to keep on thinking about this book.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Things Fall Apart

Cover of Things Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeThings Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

This has always been on a vague list of ‘I should read this sometime’ books. I knew it as a classic, and I knew a very little about the setting, but mostly I just knew that it was famous as a post-colonial novel from the African continent. Well, there was a challenge on Habitica related to John Green’s Crash Course videos, I spotted it while browsing the Kobo store, and… decided it was about time I fixed my ignorance on this front.

Reading reviews of this book on sites like Goodreads may be rage inducing, by the way. Just a warning. Of course it’s not perfect, but I can’t think of a book that everyone would agree is perfect. It’s important, which is different; it means a lot to a lot of people, and it reflects on things which happened in Nigeria both at the time the book was set, and at the time the book was written. It’s a hybrid of Nigerian and “Western” storytelling; even the title alludes to Western literature, so if you didn’t get that clue, you might be a little puzzled.

I don’t think it’s even trying to be authentically an Igbo story, a kind of non-fiction novel. The story is based in real events, but of course the literary flourishes are here — hubris, hamartia, heck, even ‘daddy issues’. It’s a reflection on a lost world, a world that’s being lost even during the story; it’s not looking back with rose-tinted regret or forward with optimism, but placing the two societies side by side and watching them affect one another. Watching how they critique each other, their incompatibilities, the appeal for people from each side to cross over.

The simple, sometimes colloquial storytelling style is a purposeful, literary device; it’s a simplified version, almost a fable, of a complex history.

Rating: 4/5

Review – In A Glass Darkly

Cover of In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le FanuIn A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu

I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, so hurrah that I finally got round to it. It’s a classic of gothic/horror stories, though to the jaded modern eye, it might not be that creepy at all. Of the stories, I liked ‘Carmilla’ and ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’ the most — the mystery in the latter spun out satisfyingly, even if I did sort of guess how it would end. ‘Carmilla’ is mostly famous, I think, because it’s an early vampire story and because there’s a lot of homoerotic content. It’s not the most gripping reading, and the ending is pretty anti-climatic: there’s no real confrontation, but quite a tame denouement with a fairly toothless (ha) vampire.

Le Fanu was good at that sense of unease/uncanniness stuff, even if it seems like weak (or green? the jokes never stop in this review) tea now. The frame story about the Doctor seemed a little pointless to me, but I think it was probably written as a way to make it a little more creepy — as if these stories were real and collected by a real person because of their topics. I’ve always thought it a pretty good device, ever since Animorphs used to give me that moment of doubt as a kid.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Sundial

17349743The Sundial, Shirley Jackson

The pleasure of reading The Sundial is in the quality of Jackson’s prose, the cleverness of the way she does character and plot through dialogue or limited narration, the way she can take almost any scene and infuse it with that little frission of dread and foreboding. I’m not as much a fan of it as I am of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though there are commonalities; most of the characters are detestable, which is not something I get along with, and all but one or two are quite weak personalities, which means they don’t act much versus a single powerful character — which makes that character repellently appealing, but makes the rest of them seem pretty insipid.

Overall, it’s never clear whether this is meant to be horror, literary, fantasy/spec fic, whatever. It can be what you want it to be. What it is really is a story about people and the way they act and react, and how difficult it would be to find people who are really worthy of inheriting a new world. You don’t have to accept that the world is really ending, only that the characters believe so.

As you’d expect, there’s also a fine sense of place; the Hallorans’ home is a character in the story too. There’s a lot of description of it, which is all revealing of character and the history of the family, but if you don’t have the patience for it, that might seem quite slow.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Canterville Ghost

Review of The Canterville Ghost by Oscar WildeThe Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde

I’ve read some of Wilde’s other work, and in general I like it more than this; the first story, ‘The Canterville Ghost’, is kind of funny, making a comedy out of a ghost story, and some of it is genuinely funny. The second and third stories in this little collection, though, were more disappointing: ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ seems a pretty standard exercise in a story of self-fulfilling prophecy, and ‘The Sphinx Without A Secret’ was just kind of bloodless.

Still, Wilde’s writing is always good, which kept the mediocre level of plotting from being just boring. ‘The Canterville Ghost’ is the best of the three, I think.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Fictions

Cover of Fictions by Jorge Luis BorgesFictions, Jorge Luis Borges

I got along with Fictions a lot better than with The Book of Imaginary Beings; while it’s still composed of various short pieces, each one has a plot and a purpose. The writing is beautiful; if the translation does any justice to the original, it must be gorgeous in its simplicity, while describing plots and settings that are anything but simple. I could almost go learn Spanish just to read Borges’ own words — though this Penguin translation by Andrew Hurley is a good one, and makes the stories accessible and clear.

Can you even pick a favourite from this volume? I suppose maybe I can — ‘The Library of Babel’, maybe, or ‘The Lottery in Babylon’. I’m going to keep this book around and reread it sometime, slower, in a different order, whatever. Just dip in and out see what else I find in these stories that I didn’t see this time. And it’s high praise for me to say that I am sure there’s a lot I didn’t see.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Homer’s Odyssey

Cover of Homer's Odyssey by Simon ArmitageHomer’s Odyssey, Simon Armitage

It’s funny to think I didn’t enjoy Armitage’s work the first time I came across it. I think it was his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that changed that. He brought something fresh and dynamic to the poem, which made it a very different reading experience to other translations and adaptations. He’s done the same here with The Odyssey. This is not a translation, or even a completely faithful adaptation: I can think of several places where it departs from the original poem.

However, he brings that same dynamism to Homer’s voice as he did to the Gawain-poet’s. Some of the turns of phrase still ring perfectly true, mixed in with the modern vernacular he uses as well. I’m sure it drives purists crazy, but I set aside any professional qualms and just read it for enjoyment, and thought that he rendered some scenes beautifully — more true to the spirit of the original than any stuffy translation, too, I think.

If you want to read The Odyssey without reading the phrase ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, and you don’t want to worry about Greek customs (xenia, for example), this makes it very easy to follow the story and understand the basic motivations of all the characters. It has a robust beauty to it that wouldn’t work in translating, say, Vergil, but I think in translating Homer it works very well.

Rating: 5/5