One of the best books that I read last year was Anna Hope’s début novel ‘Wake’, so when a generous soul offered me the opportunity to read Hope’s new novel prior to publication date, I was more than a little excited. Of course I wanted to like it, I really wanted to like it, so much so that I had to give my head a good shake as I turned into each chapter to rid myself of any subconscious, influencing notions.
I’m delighted to report that ‘The Ballroom’ delivers on every level. Set mainly during the heatwave of 1911, the story is told through the eyes of Ella, John and Charles two inmates at an asylum and their doctor. Three characters caged by their circumstances and the times they live in.
The asylum sits in the beautiful landscape of the Yorkshire moors. Men work the fields under the relentless sun of that infamous summer. An onlooker might feel they’ve stepped into a glorious painting of those golden hay-gathering days towards the end of the Edwardian era. Anna Hope captures the surroundings beautifully, however, appearances can be deceptive, and this theme is prevalent throughout this stunning novel. The men that work the fields are patients, under lock and key, and the taste of freedom will last only as long as the summer.
Male and female patients are segregated. Every Friday the chosen ones are brought together for a dance in the asylum’s incongruously opulent ballroom, overseen by Charles Fuller: doctor, musician and student of eugenics.
Caged, frustrated and dizzy from the heat, unsurprisingly passions are ignited. (more…)
Friday night was Bookclub night – we’re a tiny group, just four of us booksters. We’ve been meeting for a few years, changing size and shape over that time as members have prioritised trivialities (like having babies or moving to Australia). These ex- members are no longer referred to as booksters and we feel free to discuss their past book choices with disdain.
Book: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Host: yours truly
It occurred to me as we tucked into sushi and chatted book, that feeling protective over one’s book choice might be natural. I struggled to keep my face friendly and smiley as a fellow bookster declared how much she hated what I liked most about the book. I shall call her ‘bookster number two’ as her opinion was (insert appropriate emoji..). Now I should mention that I am known for having an uncontrollably expressive face. In fact, two Bookclubs back, bookster number two said “I don’t have to ask what Vanessa thought, I can tell by her face”. Clearly revenge for me disliking her last choice. That must be the explanation because the voice of Nao, our young Japanese narrator and diarist was not much short of brilliant.
Teenage voices can be hard to get right when your own teens are more than a decade behind you. Nao (pronounced now) is funny and heart-breaking and selfish and isolated in the way that only a bullied teenager with a secret inner life can be. Ozeki nails it. I laughed out loud and winced my way through her stream of musings. Clever and insightful with footnotes explaining Japanese words and popular culture. I’ll never sit on public transport again without playing spot the Hentai.
I’m not always a fan of footnotes in a novel, they can feel like an interruption, but in this case they really add to the enjoyment. I won’t say much about the plot. The narrative alternates between British Columbia and Japan. A Canadian writer named Ruth finds a diary inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of the Island where she lives. Ruth becomes obsessed with Nao’s story and desperate to know what happened to her. Throw into the mix a Buddhist nun, a kamikaze pilot, a depressed father and a bunch of Zen and you have this enjoyable, multi themed novel. It has its flaws, possibly too many ideas for its own good, an infuriating dream sequence – I hate dream sequences in whatever form they come, be it novel or film. Even out of the mouths of friends, I have no interest unless it exposes you as a deviant of the first order, and even then it can be summed up in a few words, no sequence required.
There’s much to love in this novel, I would certainly recommend it, I enjoyed it more than (more…)[Top]
I was excited to receive a pre-read copy from Chatto & Windus of Lisa Strømme’s The Strawberry Girl and hoped the novel would be as delicious as the cover – an early colour auto-chrome photograph by Mervyn O’Gorman of his strawberry-blonde daughter Christina. As a collector of Victorian and Edwardian photographs and a lover of art of the 19th Century I couldn’t wait to read it, not without trepidation as my expectations were already high, being seduced as I was, by such promise and beauty.
From the opening chapter we step into a painting with Johanne, our young protagonist. At ten years old she was the innocent ‘Strawberry Girl’ muse of the artist Hans Heyerdahl and now at sixteen in the early summer of 1893 her life is about to change.
Asgardstrand, Johanne’s home and a picturesque village on the banks of a fjord, draws artists from across Norway with its magical light, much like the French Impressionists flocked to the coast and towns of Normandy and the South of France in the 19th Century.The most famous of these artists was arguably Edvard Munch, who to Johanne is a fascinating, otherworldly character who encourages her desire to be creative and enables her to paint. The beauty of Asgardstrand also attracts the wealthy to its shores and Johanne is employed as a maid at the summer home of a naval family, where she soon befriends their youngest daughter.
The wild and beautiful Tullik, four years older than Johanne and bored with the restraints of her position in society, is desperate to shed those confines, becoming obsessed with Munch and determined to seduce him. Johanne unwittingly finds herself in the middle of a scandalous love affair, made complicated, not only by the villager’s staunch disapproval of Munch, but by the precarious mental health of the artist and the society girl who becomes his muse.
Lisa Strømme’s novel is a delight; she brings to the page the beauty of Asgardstrand in all its sensory glory and at the same time cleverly allows us to see Munch’s work emerging from the landscape through his solitary and mentally unstable eyes. Johanne’s artistic awakening plays out alongside the mental deterioration of her friend Tullik. Johanne is a highly intelligent young girl destined for more than her background dictates, trying desperately to manage a situation beyond her control.
The paintings take on a life of their own, (more…)[Top]