BooksOfTheMoon

The Glass Woman

By Caroline Lea

Rating: 2 stars

In 17th century Iceland Rósa marries the wealthy Jon, a chief in a distant village, so that her elderly and ill mother will get the food and warmth she needs. In her new husband’s home, she finds no love, only fear and distrust, and something lurking in the attic.

The comparisons in this book to Jane Eyre (the locked attic) and Rebecca (the mysterious first wife) are clear, but I didn’t find The Glass Woman nearly as compelling as the other two. There’s a relentless misery to Rósa’s life with Jon, and her fear, rising to terror at times, of him is painful to read. His isolation of her and his insistence that she be an obedient wife just make make angry. It may be accurate for the period, but it’s still infuriating.

What’s also really infuriating, is that so much of that could have been resolved simply through trust and conversation. Not all of it, perhaps. Jon’s apprentice Pétur is a troubled young man, and Egill, the priest, is greedy and small-minded. Trouble would be inevitable, but it needn’t have been so between Jon and Rósa, if he’d been able to trust her enough that she felt able to come to him with her fears. And that’s frustrating.

Also, from the time that she marries Jon, Rósa’s life is unrelentingly grim. There’s no bright points in their marriage at all, which makes it unpleasant to read, for my taste, at least. In saying that, it’s a very readable book, with the mystery drawing me ever onwards.

The Icelandic landscape and climate is very vividly drawn, becoming a character in its own right, as it draws the characters in, ever more claustrophobic. The clash between the new religion of Christianity and the old, Nordic, gods is interesting and feels real. The new religion needs to stamp itself to the land and so any reference to the old is forbidden, on pain of exclusion or death, but the roots aren’t so easily expunged.

I was promised a modern gothic novel and I suppose I got one. But one that felt too unrelenting to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405934619
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2019

Out Of Space And Time

By Clark Ashton Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I was vaguely aware of Clark Ashton Smith as a collaborator of H. P. Lovecraft but little beyond that, so I thought this collection of short stories might serve to provide a flavour of his work. It did, but not in the way that I’d hoped. Although I enjoyed the first story in the collection, The End of the Story, I could probably have just read that and then stopped. The prose is so purple it heads towards infra-black and the tone is rarely anything other than portentous and pompous, to a degree that I found quite infuriating (but which did mean that the rare flashes of humour were all the more unexpected and welcome).

The work, to an amateur eye, like mine, reads like Lovecraft (on a bad day) but feels quite heavy and kludgy. I did finish the collection and, for what it’s worth, my favourite story of the collection, The Monster of the Prophecy is quite near the end, so I’m (mostly) glad that I got that far. This story concerns a human encounter with an alien and contains one of the aforementioned rare flashes of humour, that made it stand out for me.

On the whole though, whilst tolerable in small doses, I struggled with this one and I won’t be looking out any more by Smith.

Book details

ISBN: 9780803293526
Publisher: Bison Books
Year of publication: 1942

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Rating: 5 stars

This is an old favourite and one that I come back to every few years. Jane is a character very dear to my heart, very different to Lizzie Bennett, yet I put them in the same place in my head. Jane may be poor, plain and friendless, but she is a strong character. Although she plays the part of subservient, demure governess, the relationship between her and Mr Rochester is anything but.

I always find the start and end of the book a bit difficult. The start because I empathise with Jane immensely, and her cry of “unjust” rings through my head as I follow her, first through the trials of Gateshead, from “master” John to the Red Room, then through Lowood school and the heartbreakingly good Helen Burns. The tail end, after she’s left Thornwood, I find hard for a different reason: the character of St John Rivers. He’s dizzyingly stern and uncompromising as a rod, but more than that, I find him intensely creepy. His domination of Jane is very different to her relationship with Rochester. It’s not just the lack of love, but the fact that he knows what he’s proposing will kill Jane quickly and it doesn’t move him. This time round, I also realised that he’s a windbag, as well as being sanctimonious. All praise to Brontë for an incredible character.

I love the various set pieces throughout the book, from the first meeting with Rochester on Hay Lane, through the bedroom fire, “portrait of a governess”, the fortune teller, the wedding right through to “Pilot knows me” and, of course, “Reader, I married him.” These are just the scenes that come to mind off the top of my head, there’s very little of the book that I dislike at all. Even the opening and tail end sections I talk about above are marvellous to enjoy and I mention them specially only because of the intense emotions they invoke: the true sign of a master storyteller.

I’ve not mentioned Bertha Mason in this review. She’s a problematic character to modern sentiments but fits the gothic and dramatic tone of the book. I believe various books have been written to tell her story and paint her more sympathetically, although I’ve not read any. I just ned to put my “product of its time” filter firmly in place (something I’ve had practice with, as a fan of Golden Age SF).

(Aside: I happened to be rereading this book when a touring theatre production of Jane Eyre came to my city. It was incredible: intense, modern, touching on all the highlights of the book, condensed into a stage play. If you have the chance, do go and see it.)

Book details

ISBN: 9780142437209
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1847

Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

Rating: 3 stars

While working as a paid companion to a wealthy American woman in Monte Carlo, the never named protagonist of this novel meets the somewhat mysterious widower Maxim de Winter, is swept up and very shortly married and taken back to his ancestral mansion, Manderley, in England. There she finds echoes of his first wife, Rebecca, all around and must struggle with herself and the ghost of Rebecca.

I came to this after having enjoyed other gothic novels, particularly those of Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte. But I found the protagonist of this book very frustrating; she’s certainly no Jane Eyre! It’s not just that she’s incredibly shy and awkward, unable to stand up to the servants at Manderley and hating the ritual of visiting and receiving, but that she’s self-aware enough to be ashamed of her failings, but seemingly unable to correct them. When she relates how she hides her underwear from her maid and mends it itself or how she runs away from the formidable housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and hides in the servants’ corridor, I found myself torn between intense sympathy and just wanting to shake her and tell her to pull herself together.

She’s desperately in love with Maxim but feels the aura of Rebecca all around and can’t help feeling that he is still in love with his first wife. In fact, she’s got a bad habit (which we all have to some degree, but Mrs de Winter takes it to extremes) of starting with one bad thought and spinning an entire future from it, which then makes her feel worse and worse. It’s an awful thing to witness, but top marks to de Maurier for writing and creating such a protagonist.

It’s over half way in, after the Big Revelation, before I started being drawn into the novel properly and it became compelling. The end was signposted from the first chapter, as Mrs de Winter dreams of being back at Manderley only to find it in ruins (not a spoiler, as I say, this is in the first chapter) but is still compelling despite this.

So an interesting novel with well-drawn characters – Mrs Danvers, in particular, is excellent – but probably not one that I’d read again.

Book details

ISBN: 9781844080380
Publisher: Virago Press (UK)
Year of publication: 1938

The Moonstone

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 4 stars

The Moonstone of the title is a magnificent, sacred Indian diamond, stolen by a soldier in the British Raj and later given to his niece as a birthday present, whereupon it immediately goes missing. Just under half the book tells the story leading up to the disappearance, and the rest tackles the consequences and efforts to recover it.

Stylistically, it’s similar to Collins’ other famous work, The Woman in White with a number of different first person narratives telling the story through time. My favourite narrator was the first, the inestimable Gabriel Betteredge, old servant of the family and devotee of Robinson Crusoe. He’s got a charming narrative voice and his frequent ramblings and asides are great fun to read.

Gabriel’s polar opposite is Miss Clack, a creation, in my opinion, to rival The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, and yet also hilarious (in short doses). She’s a mockery of the kind of holier-than-thou “Christian” who Collins probably did encounter more frequently than he would like liked. She starts of as a harmless old biddie but as her narrative goes on, I found her creepier and creepier, possibly because I found her complete lack of empathy and deep selfishness, disguised as piety, all too believable.

Lots of fun, very easy to read and (for readers of my edition, at least), not as intimidating as it looks: the paper’s just very thick!

Book details

ISBN: 9781847490094
Publisher: Oneworld Classics
Year of publication: 1868

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 stars

Hartright is a drawing master who gets engaged to tutor two young ladies in an out of the way part of the country. Before long he is wrapped up in the mystery of the titular woman in white and must find out the secret of Sir Percival Glyde, the financeé of one of his charges, before it’s too late.

I loved this book. It’s a fast-paced thriller (despite being over 600 pages long, it never feels like it dawdles) with some lovely characterisation. I’ve been told by someone in the know that Wilkie Collins was parodying some of the more overwrought gothic romances of his time. I didn’t pick up on that, but even without having the additional layers of knowledge, there’s a lot to enjoy about this book.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Glyde, and his friend Count Fosco, are the villains of the piece. But while Glyde is merely an upper class English thug that you can can’t throw a stone in Victorian literature without hitting, Fosco is something else entirely. He’s a marvellous creation who exudes charm and quirkiness, with a dedication to his pets, whilst having a very intelligent, ruthless core. He’s also believably flawed, and his interactions with Marian Halcombe are both delightful and flesh-crawling. That’s the mark of a good writer right there!

I think that the aforementioned Miss Halcombe is probably my second-favourite character, after Count Fosco. She’s intelligent, witty and not the kind of woman to go around swooning at a moment’s notice (not something you can say about her half-sister, Laura, who is to be married to Sir Percival).

So a rocking thriller with some great characters and a mystery that extends throughout the book. The structure, with multiple narrators also feels very modern and I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone who has a modicum of an attention span.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099511243
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1859

Powered by WordPress