Wednesday 24 November 2021

Review: The Temple of Hymen by Jacqui Lofthouse


The first book I read this year was Lydia Syson’s The Doctor or Love, a biography of James Graham, a fascinating eighteenth century doctor who experimented with electricity in a grand-standing, showy way, creating a stupendous building called The Temple of Health which functioned something like a modern spa. When I read that book, I thought it would make a fascinating setting for a play or novel, I envisioned it something of a farce. 

The Temple of Hymen by Jacqui Lofthouse is a melodrama with a dark, unsettling tone throughout. There are two narrators, Emilia, who has written her memoirs and Lord Vermillion who is editing them and adding his own comments. It strikes a strange note immediately, with both narrators warning the reader not to be taken in by the honeyed word of the other. There are allusions to great tragedy in the future and it’s clear that the reader won’t be allowed to have solid ground to make their judgements from.

Finding out about the younger Emilia, we learn she believes she murdered her mother and is a devil child. This is furthered by a trip to Bristol to drink healing waters which turn red as blood at the same time she bites a woman who is scaring her. Although the waters turning red has a scientific explanation, she can’t help feeling tainted. The little family move to a house in the Adelphi buildings that her father won in a lottery and they watch as James Graham’s Temple of Health is being set up next door. It’s clear from clues that the family are down on their luck and her father gets Emilia dressed in the latest fashions and she is given the most fashionable hairstyle, a huge, towering concoction of her own hair, wool, fake hair and grease. Because they are not rich enough, the hairstyle is not maintained and Emilia is sure there’s something moving around in it. In a truly horrific scene, Emilia undoes the hairstyle and hundreds of flies buzz out, with a huge writhing mass of maggots at the centre. It’s such a good use of historical research, that such a thing could happen but it is nasty and visceral and completely unnerving. 

Shortly afterwards her father dies and she goes into mourning. One day during that, the Thames freezes over and Emilia decides to go the the Temple of Health next door, as she feels tainted by her feelings of having the devil in her, as shown by her recent infestation. This is something I found very off-putting about Emilia’s character, that it snows and the Thames freezes and Emilia decides it’s a sign for her. Later other events happen, which are large social and weather events and each time she decides it’s happened to specifically give her messages. 

The Temple is described as awe-inspiring and James Graham himself is portrayed as something of a Wizard of Oz figure. Having read a biography of him, he seems like he was charismatic, a natural showman and he had some genuinely good notions about keeping healthy but he struck me as a faintly comical figure (my notes say doofus). In this he’s something of a distant wizard. 

As Emilia tells her story, Vermillion comes in, nominally to set facts straight but really to tell his own. He hints of horrors seen when he happened to be in France during the early days of revolution, of a shocking death of his parents, of his own past as a rake and the gout that now cripples him. There’s something of the carnival barker about him, banging his drum and announcing the mysteries and turns the book will take and it almost gets irritating. Lofthouse has a remarkable skill in knowing when to drop a small revelation just as the reader (or at least this reader) was on the verge of being frustrated with the whole endeavour.

The central villain of the piece is a Lord who has been betrothed to Emilia called Smellie. Much is made of this name and Emilia spends a good few chapters imagining what a fat, farting, obnoxious sort of person a Lord Smellie must be. When he turns up he is something very different, a Macaroni. These were hyper-fashionable young men who set out to shock by their over-the-top clothes, make-up and wigs, their affected speech and their practiced mannerisms. This particular Macaroni turns out to be a particularly nasty piece of work but there is a disgust of such people that taps into fear of clowns (never trust a painted smile) but also one which taps into a threatened masculinity. Part of the point of being a Macaroni was to revel in excess and play with gender and both characters are particularly disturbed by this.

Many things happen in this book, some very shocking, even grotesque. There are quotes from Shakespeare throughout but it borrows most from (possibly my favourite) play, The Winter’s Tale. In theory, we reach a happy ending but the world presented in this book doesn’t seem like one where anybody can be very happy, at least not for long.

Particularly as I write about this book, I admire it but I didn’t really enjoy reading it. Despite the opulence in many of the locations, there’s a grunginess to this book, a deep-seated ugliness which is no doubt intentional and made me feel the way it wished me to feel but which didn’t grip me. Despite the betrayals, tricks and shocks, I found the book dreary and a little po-faced, like it was trying to challenge me in some way. Perhaps another time I would have really taken to the book, found it’s determination to make me feel mildly queasy to be bold. It’s very possible that my catching this year’s tummy bug as I read it may not have helped but I am left with a book I can recognise the quality of but which felt like a slog to read.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Review: An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney

An Almond for a Parrot is the first novel by Wray Delaney, a pseudonym of Sally Gardner, a successful writer for children - and she’s having a blast.

No longer constrained by a children’s audience or (until the paperback editions) her real name, Gardner is let loose to do anything she wants. As a result, this book is a confusing, often cringeworthy and frequently quite bonkers mix of Fanny Hill and Nights at the Circus in which the chief joy is realising the joy the author had in writing whatever she wanted.

It’s 1756, Tully Truegood is imprisoned in Newgate for murder and is determined to tell her life story as "orphan, whore, murderer?" as the blurb puts it. The blurb fails to mention the ghosts, resurrected dead animals, trapeze acts or flying. The tone is immediately confidential and bouncy, cramming in theatre allusions, Shakespeare quotes and a recipe for hasty pudding. The early chapters often start with a recipe which makes sardonic comment on the chapter in hand; Tully’s own creation is something of a hasty pudding, there’s a recipe for virgin eggs when she begins to sexually awaken, and another for candied fruit when she discovers the joys of dress and make-up. Strangely, this recipe idea, which Tully even mentions as integral to her telling at the beginning of the book, sort of drifts away. It’s feels like while Sally Gardner enjoyed the ironic recipes they were in and when they became too difficult to come up with they are dropped.

The reader is introduced to Tully as a child, locked away in her drunken father’s London townhouse where she sees people that it turns out other people cannot, including a little boy in the grandfather clock and a small girl called Pretty Poppet (whom we later discover is actually named Poppet, which is like genuinely naming a child Swee’Pea). She is ostensibly raised by Cook, which explains the recipes, until her father remarries and brings along two step-daughters called Hope and Mercy.

The ghost element is then abandoned while the book cribs off Fanny Hill for some time. Like Fanny, she experiences some light lesbian fingering before seeing her first cock when she peeks through a hole in a screen, unlike Fanny, she’s not very impressed. There are also elements of the book that mirror Fanny’s relationship with Charles and a section that completely rips-off Fanny’s keeper Mr B, who teaches her French. Most excruciatingly, the influence of Fanny Hill extends to the language surrounding sex. My toes curled up to the ankle when the young Tully views herself in the mirror and realises she has ‘rounded ivory globes’ and the prettiest little ‘mound of Venus’. My toes went all the way to my knees when her seemingly puritanical teacher Mr Smollett wishes her to sit on his lap during lessons and she feels his ‘parsnip’ stir. Again, the only explanation I can think of for the amount and goofiness of the sexual stuff is an awful delighted at no longer being confined to writing for children.

The book barrels along with its plot and the magical elements start to come to the fore with a character called Mr Crease, who teaches her magic as she is also being taught the ways of a high-class courtesan. These elements of magic and sex even come together when she is gifted a ‘pearl hand’ by an elocution teacher at St Bartholomew’s Fair. This power is essentially a magic wanking hand which can bring men to climax at the merest touch, a gift she uses surprisingly rarely and often in public.

The central mystery surrounds a Fleet marriage was forced to take part in when she was twelve, with the main claiming to be her husband wishing to get her back and aided by his sadistic friend/lover. Here, the book that has been largely fluffy, taking the Fanny Hill, Woman of Pleasure attitude to sex and prostitution becomes very dark indeed. The sadistic friend is truly one of the worst people in almost any book I’ve read and his principal pleasures are physical abuse, rape and murder - and he doesn’t really have a limit to how young he’d go. Any comeuppance given to the man in the book is not enough and the grim nature of that part of the plot clashes terribly with the magical fortune telling dogs, secret bookcase passages and a world of caring, kind keepers where the worst thing about being a courtesan seems to be snagging a boring client.

The book is a mess, and with an author delighting in putting anything she fancies in, it was always going to be. However, it can’t be said that it’s ever predictable and there is a certain amount of fun in seeing how much fun the author is having.

Wednesday 10 November 2021

An Odd Question About Narrators.

 A bit of an odd one, this.

I recently read a book called The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen. It tells the story of Judith, a ten year old girl who builds an imaginary world in her room and finds she has miracle powers from God. When she enacts things in her imaginary world, the real world mirrors it. As the novel continues, she begins to fear her power and their unexpected effects.

It was a good novel but what struck me most about it was a philosophical qualm I had in the middle of reading it, which I would roughly formulate thus;

The text in the book is the only depiction of the world the book takes place in.

The text is narrated in first person by Judith.

Judith believes she has magical powers given to her by God.

Therefore - I should accept that it is true, in the world of the book, that she does have magical powers.

… So why did I not?

How was it possible for me to conclude that the powers were all in Judith’s head and a result of a number of coincidences, when the text gave me nothing outside Judith’s head?

I could appeal to reality, that in reality people do not have magic powers but the book is not reality, it’s all made up. Judith, her father, her town, all the ‘concrete’ elements of the book are just as fictional as her powers which, to the narrator, were just as real. There were characters in the book that Judith told about her powers who didn’t believe her, so there was an element of the text which left an ‘in’ to there being no powers but they were also reported to us by Judith. If we accept her reporting of those characters, we should also accept her reporting of her magic powers. 

I could appeal to the author, that perhaps she was writing the book in the belief that although Judith believes in her magic powers, they are the result of coincidence. The trouble with this is that beyond an interview/discussion with the author, her intent is unknown outside the text, which (at this point in the middle of the book) asserts the powers are real. There’s also the interesting side-note that if there are no powers in the book, only coincidences, they aren’t coincidences at all but part of the plan of the author to convince Judith she has powers.

Ultimately, my best answer to explain why I didn’t believe in the powers, despite the book baldly stating their reality, was an appeal to genre. Whereas a fantasy, sci-fi, gothic or some heightened genre has space to have magic powers, this was essentially a realist book. It was grounded in a clear time (1980s) a clear place (a Welsh steel town) and there were a number of concrete markers to locate it (from defunct shops like Kwiksave, to the clothes the characters wore). From my previous genre knowledge, it was impossible for Judith to have magic powers, even if it was possible for her to believe it.

As I said, this little qualm came up in the middle of the book, it could have been that by the end of the book the powers could have been firmly established as true - thus making it a fantasy book hiding under the appearance of realism. Actually, it disproved the powers and Judith realised she’d been wrong about them, justifying my non-belief but I didn’t have that reassurance in the middle.

I’m fond of an unreliable narrator, particularly ones who aren’t purposefully trying to mislead their audience but are mislead themselves. In my own writing, I frequently tell stories from characters who fundamentally don’t properly understand the world they are living in and try to give the reader enough clues to interpret what’s actually happening. There’s also the interesting idea that all narrators are essentially unreliable, telling us the story only as they see it - but that brings us back to the thorny issue of how we can see it differently from them, given as our only information about the world comes from them.

Are there any books you can think of where the narrator doesn’t understand the world they are describing to you? It’s an interesting thing to ponder.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Samuel Johnson's attitude to books

Samuel Johnson had a an attitude to books that often surprises people. 

Not only was he a towering figure in literature, but much of his work was about literature. His earliest large project was reading and summarising a whole library for a catalogue, his dictionary was based on a wide and intense reading of literature, his other large works were an edition of Shakespeare’s plays and a collection of biographical and literary critiques of poets. Yet he had no respect for books as physical objects at all.

People who leant Johnson books complained that he spilled food on tea on it, visitors to his house were shocked by how he used books as coasters, doorstops and to prop up wobbling furniture. Even his way of reading, pulling the books open, cracking their spines and peering in (his eyesight never being great) was detrimental to them. Boswell reports that he once visited Johnson who was ‘dusting’ his books by vigorously banging them together. People did not like him borrowing their books, Garrick upset Johnson greatly by refusing to lend him his folio Shakespeares.

It does seem there was an element to Johnson who enjoyed being earthier than a man of his achievements should be, that he liked to be something other than an airy academic, that he felt grounded in his time as a Grub Street hack. There’s also the fact that he was raised in a bookshop, a failing bookshop at that. He boasted that he was one of few writers who also knew how to physically make a book as well as to write one. His understanding of how to bind a book may have led him to see them as tools. I think Johnson would have been very supportive of e-readers, he’d have been astonished at how much variety can be carried about and would have made very good use of the font-sizing ability. Whether he’d have looked after the device is another question.

More than that, Johnson didn’t read the way people do today. While people may have many books on the go, they expect to pick a book up and read it through. Johnson claimed to have not read any book all the way through, though I expect that was exaggeration - he must have read Shakespeare’s plays through to review them, and probably his three favourite works; Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. That said, Johnson seemed to read as a cow in a field, to dip in and out of different works, grazing as he went. He admitted many times to skipping pages, or putting books down which hadn’t grabbed his attention. In modern parlance, he was a huge DNFer.

For a man famous for books that take some strenuous physical wrangling (the dictionary is no light work) he preferred smaller books, declaring;

  “Books, that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all." For a man famous for the seriousness of much of his work, he liked to while away the time reading tales of knights and derring-do.

 Most importantly to his attitude to reading, is that a person should read what they feel like reading and when. He says this multiple times in multiple ways. The sentiment is found in his own writing and in numerous anecdotes by numerous people. 

  "What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.” - Idler 74

For Johnson, the joy of a well stocked library was the means to supply him with the right kind of reading material for whichever mood he was in, which was how he read so much and so widely, because he essentially had every book within reach on the go all the time.

If Johnson was a cow in a huge pasture of reading, I am a squirrel. I hoard books, burying them away on my shelves before picking them out and savouring them one by one. For the past ten years or so, I’ve always finished what I’ve started - I think the last book I didn’t finish was Clarissa and know if I start it again, I shall finish.

Are either of these approaches better than the other? Probably not but the differences are interesting to note.