The Gathering – Anne Enright

Book #9b

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


Published in 2007, this novel won the Man Booker Prize in the same year and two further Irish book awards the following year.

Set predominantly in Dublin, the narrator is one of the large Hegarty clan, Veronica.  She starts the winding tale with a wistful desire to revisit a specific time in her childhood,

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

And that is the beginning of a long, slow, meander through current day events, Veronica’s memories, thoughts and imaginings.

The main story begins with Veronica visiting her mother in order to tell her that her older brother Liam has died.  Veronica gets this duty from being the “the careful one” and because she is “the one who loved him most” of the siblings.
From this point on, the narrative jumps from the current day to her memories to her imagination and back again.  She spends a lot of time musing about her grandparents, Ada and Charlie, and their contemporary Lamb Nugent. She also recalls many aspects of her childhood and reflects on the way her family was, and how that plays out to their individual present day situations, including Liam’s manner of death.

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The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Book #242

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, published in 1985, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General’s Award.

The setting is the near future in the USA.  Our narrator is a Handmaid called Offred.  We are introduced to the current state of the world through Offred’s eyes, and via her memories in flashback we are given glimpses of how the USA becomes the Republic of Gilead.

Following a bloody coup the government of the USA is taken over by a group called the ‘Sons of Jacob’.  This signals the beginning of a strict, military based theocratic society.  Offred is old enough to remember what life was like prior to the coup when she had a husband, a daughter and a job.  By the time the narrative of the story begins that life is a thing of the past, and she is now a Handmaid valued only for her functioning ovaries and reproductive abilities.

Society is now defined by roles and women are now kept uneducated and forbidden to read. They are now totally under control of the state with pretty much no rights, even to the point of being assigned to men.

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Written on the body – Jeanette Winterson

Book #154

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


This is the second of four books by Jeanette Winterson to be reviewed here at the 1001 Books list.  The first was Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Having read and reviewed Oranges nearly three years ago now, it’s been a while since I was last immersed in Ms Winterson’s prose.  And what prose it is!

The novel is a love story, of sorts.  Erotic in parts, thoughtful in others. Humour is threaded throughout, as well as odd bits of poignancy.
It is told in first person, and as such gives us access to the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, as well as their experiences.   What it doesn’t detail, in any way is their gender, age, name or anything actually identifiable other than their work as a Russian translator.

What we do know about the narrator is that they are a lifelong philanderer, who has a disregard for marriage and a penchant for choosing to be *the other person* to married women.  After a particularly bad relationship experience with Bathsheba, the narrator’s dentist, they swear off their pattern of behaviour and choose a steady, unmarried partner – Jacqueline.

Unfortunately this does not work out well, both with the narrator’s temperament and then with the appearance of Louise, a pre-Raphaelite beauty from Australia.  They fall head over heels for this, once again, married woman.  The path ahead is not a smooth one, but the prose most certainly is.

Humorous passages are found when the narrator retells stories of previous lovers.

 I had a girlfriend once who was addicted to starlit nights.  She thought beds belonged in hospitals. Anywhere she could do it that wasn’t pre-sprung was sexy.  Show her a duvet and she switched on the television.  I coped with this on campsites and in canoes, British Rail and Aeroflot.  I bought a futon, eventually a gym mat.  I had to lay extra-thick carpet on the floor.  I took to carrying a tartan rug wherever I went, like a far-out member of the Scottish Nationalist Party.  Eventually, back at the doctor’s for the fifth time having a thistle removed, he said to me, ‘You know, love is a very beautiful thing but there are clinics for people like you.’  Now, it’s a serious matter to have ‘PERVERT’ written on your NHS file and some indignities are just a romance too far.

And, of course you won’t want to miss a similar little story about the anarcha-feminist girlfriend, Inge, and her semtex.

But the vast majority of the novel is devoted to waxing lyrical about love, sex and sensuality.  Some is blunt, but most is carried away to intense descriptions of love, lust and admiration for a lover and their body.

I didn’t only want Louise’s flesh, I wanted her bones, her blood, her tissues, the sinews that bound her together. I would have held her to me though time had stripped away the tones and textures of her skin. I could have held her for a thousand years until the skeleton itself rubbed away to dust.

It’s a really interesting novel, especially the aspect of the un-gendered narrator.  For me, I found myself constantly wondering… were they male or female?  And then I found myself wondering… does it matter?  Even a week or so after finishing the book, I’m unsure that it does matter, but it certainly is something to think about.  Perhaps it is a gender parallel of the tendency to think of characters as white unless otherwise described in novels.  A tendency to need to box us in to our gender binary.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this novel and the ‘almost invisible, other than their thoughts and feelings’ narrator.

Happy reading !

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Book #940

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

After visiting the  Regency world by re-reading Emma and reviewing it here at the end of last year, I thought I would continue to reacquaint myself with the four Jane Austen novels that remain to be reviewed.

You might remember that in my review of Emma I confessed to being an Austen fan from a young age but that time and *maturity* had altered some of my enjoyment of her work.   Sense and Sensibility continued this trend for me.

This is the first of Austen’s published works; it is set in the 1790s, when it was originally written, and follows the two Dashwood sisters.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are daughters of their father’s second marriage, and when he dies their elder brother from the previous marriage takes over the family home, Norland.  Like many women of the time, they are solely reliant on his good graces and a meagre amount of their own money on which to keep themselves.  In Austen’s usual style their step-brother John is influenced by his greedy wife, Fanny, and chooses to settle nothing on them.   Instead, they and their mother are treated rather like unwelcome guests in what had been their own home.

While Mrs Dashwood is searching for a suitable, affordable property for her family to remove to Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, joins the household.  It becomes clear that he and Elinor form an attachment over the time he is with them.  Both are reserved, but it is still obvious to those around them.  Unfortunately, the Ferrars family are bent on his ‘becoming’ someone important and that results in Fanny speeding the Dashwood’s exit from Norland by insinuating that Elinor is, in essence, gold-digging.  Fortunately for the ladies, a distant cousin comes to the rescue with an affordable cottage on an estate in Devonshire, far removed from Norland.  They grasp it and move out with all haste.

Mrs Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne and younger sister Margaret, remove to Devonshire and Barton Cottage.  They are under the attentive eye of their cousin, Sir John Middleton. He, his wife, his mother-in-law Mrs Jennings and Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John’s make up the party at Barton Park.
After a short while it becomes clear that Colonel Brandon forms an attachment for Marianne, but she considers him to be an old bachelor and of no attraction for anyone, least of all herself.
Mrs Jennings, a well-off widow who has married her daughters off, now takes on the task of doing the same for the Dashwoods.

In the meantime, Mr Willoughby joins the story when Marianne slips while out walking and twists her ankle.  He rescues her and returns her home.  Thereafter he is included in the regular balls, parties and events of the neighbourhood.  It becomes clear to all that he and Marianne form a strong and unconcealed attachment, which eventually leads people to suspect that they must have become engaged.

All seems to be going along well when in short order both Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby turn the Dashwood sisters’ worlds on end, and a romantic farce ensues.  The sisters go to London under the auspices of the very kind Mrs Jennings, and a comedy of manners involving secret engagements, social climbing, and snobbery takes place.

The main theme is laid out in the title of the novel – Sense and Sensibility.
Elinor is all about prudence, good judgement, careful behaviour and attending to all the social graces even when she is put out and in emotional distress.  It never occurs to her to spread her own pain and grievances to her mother or sister, or friends.  She is self-control personified.  She is sense embodied.

Marianne, on the other hand, is all about feeling.  She must gush, feel every pain and pleasure to its utmost. She does not attempt to be civil or considerate of others when her own emotional state is in flux, and gives no thought to the pain that her excesses give to her mother and sister.  She is ungoverned and makes no exertion to control her excesses of feeling.  She is all sensibility.

The question of how the farce resolves – does good sense result in happiness, or does sensibility? – is well worth the occasional tedious passages, and slightly melodramatic way that the outcome is arrived at.

But do check your modern sensibilities at the door.  There is plenty for a modern eye to disdain in the conduct of more than one character.  It also helps to keep in mind that the characters and some of their actions are meant to be excessive and ridiculous.  It is partly an 18th century send-up after all, not just a social commentary.

Happy reading !

Emma – Jane Austen

Book #936

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

EThe option of reading and reviewing a classic by Jane Austen is rather a relaxing entry in to a summer of 1001 Books for me.  I had read her entire canon when I was a teenager, and have revisited them sporadically ever since.  However, it has been some time since my last venture into Regency England and naturally my ideas and world view have moved on in many respects. This is now evident in how I feel about the novel after this read through.

As a teenager I was enthralled with the Regency world as described in Austen’s works. Even the work required to get around the changes in language over the centuries didn’t diminish my enjoyment.   I was a die hard fan from the outset.

Fast forward an *ahem* number of years and re-reading Emma brought along another set of experiences.  Still, the enjoyment of being immersed in a society so completely different from our own, but with a tinge of modern feminist ‘what the heck’ thrown in for good measure.

The story of the titular heroine is one of meddling, self-indulgence and, eventually, self-awareness.

Emma begins in the home of the Woodhouses following the wedding of Emma’s governess Miss Taylor, to a local gentleman, Mr Weston.  Mr Woodhouse is lamenting their loss and through this we are introduced to his nervous, almost foppish, hypochondria-laden character.  His is a difficult character to read and not want to slap from a modern perspective; but he is also the means with which the underlying behaviour of being well-mannered, courteous and generally good at heart is shown to overrule such deficiencies.

Once ‘poor Miss Taylor’ is settled in at her new abode, Randalls, Emma takes on a local girl as a protégé and companion in lieu of Mrs Weston and eventually succumbs to and indulges her own fancies of being a matchmaker.  Harriet Smith is a girl of unknown parentage, clearly a ‘natural’ child of someone wealthy enough to pay for an education but not wishing the relationship to be generally visible to society.

Mr Knightley, an old friend and Emma’s brother-in-law, sees the danger to both women.  One in being convinced that she should be elevated beyond her station in life by Emma’s encouragement, and the other in being unrestrained by a wiser companion.   He is proved right in the first instance, with Emma dissuading Harriet from the marriage proposal of an eminently suitable young man, and having her fix her eyes on a man for whom the whole idea of marrying beneath him is an abhorrence.

In to this basic plot we add two other young people, Miss Jane Fairfax and Mr Frank Churchill.  The former an accomplished young woman, of sense and character, but of a good family in financial decline.  The latter, the son of Mr Weston who has been raised by his rich aunt and uncle.  He brings pleasing manners and general merriment, but more self-interest than self-awareness.

It is the fondest wishes of Mr and Mrs Weston that Frank and Emma should become attached to each other, while society in general feels for the situation of Miss Fairfax.  What follows is a rich comedy of manners involving all those mentioned so far, as well as Miss Bates (Jane Fairfax’s aunt), Mr Elton and latterly Mrs Elton.

Only the steadfast and observant Mr Knightley seems able to calmly assess the damage and danger to all, courtesy of Emma’s self-indulgent behaviour, and tries to point them out to her. Eventually the comedy plays out and the participants go to their respective right places at the last.  But not without some trepidations.

Emma’s folly and character is softened by her own realisations, and admission of errors.  If she had remained oblivious to herself she would have become a Mrs Elton, full of pride and blind to her lack of understanding.  But that would not do for the story’s heroine; she is not fixed and unable to examine herself and her behaviour.  She understands that she has faults that require her attention, and that makes her accessible.

Although my view of certain characters has changed since my youth, I still find this an excellent novel dealing with the manners, expectations and difficulties the women of this section of Regency society had to navigate.    This is not the novel of manners / love story that we tend to see in Pride and Prejudice, so do not open this book thinking you will be reading a clone of that.  But don’t be put off.  It is still an enjoyable read, language and relative silliness of certain characters to the modern eye aside.

Happy reading !