The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Book # 880

Reviewer: Ange – Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle


TWiWThe Woman in White, published in the 1850s, is considered one of the earliest mystery novels published. It is a story wrought with danger and intrigue, mystery and deception. It is a detective story and a love story, with the twists and turns one would expect from any modern-day thriller.

I’m not one for giving away huge plot details, but especially not with a story such as this where the reader waits for everything to unfold. There are moments where the plotline is rather predictable, but not in a way that had me rolling my eyes; instead, I hurriedly turned page after page, eager to discover how thing unfolded for the characters.

Without spoiling anything (I hope!), the novel is about a young art teacher who, on his way to begin some private tuition, helps a woman dressed in white. When he arrives at his posting, he is struck by the similarity between the woman in white, and his student. The tutor and his student fall in love, but she has been promised to another man; they marry and the reader soon learns some disagreeable facts about her new husband. As the identity of the woman in white is slowly revealed, the plot thickens around her young lookalike and her new husband, and assorted other characters of similar unsavoury natures.

The story features an escape from a lunatic asylum, a dramatic church fire, identity switches, and tragic deaths – all the features of a good mystery or thriller novel.

I’m a big fan of writers from this era, and this, my first Wilkie Collins novel, did not disappoint. Full of characteristic and dramatic descriptive passages, and passionate, dramatic characters, The Woman in White is a compelling and intriguing read. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – Victor Hugo

Book #922

Reviewer: J. Gi Federizo


THONDForget Disney. If you’re reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (The Hunchback) for the first time, I’m telling you, NEVER pre-judge a book especially by its animated film version. I grew up watching Disney, but quite frankly, it has this annoying knack of messing up the literary classics. Like The Little Mermaid living happily ever-after with her Prince, and even having a spawn in the sequel! I’m surprised there’s even a sequel. That’s classic murder, to be figurative and blunt about it.

So don’t expect the book to be as fine and dandy as the animated adaptation. Consider yourself very sufficiently warned.

Originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), Victor Hugo’s novel is undoubtedly set in Paris, year 1482. Quasimodo, the deaf and horribly deformed hunchback bell-ringer, attempts to abduct the Gypsy girl hailed as La Esmeralda. The attempt is somehow foiled and Esmeralda falls in love with her handsome rescuer, Phoebus de Châteaupers, captain of the King’s Ordinance’s archers. Quasimodo is captured while his alchemist-master, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, flees. The priest’s great infatuation with the Bohemian streetdancer has driven him to mastermind her abduction and use his ward.

With hardly any reliable witness to Frollo’s participation in this, only the servant is captured, tried, publicly tortured and humiliated, both as punishment for the deed and for merely looking the way he does. Ironically, it is only Esmeralda who shows him kindness during this time and he never forgets it. He falls for her as well, so much so that in a sudden twist of fate when it is she who is persecuted, he returns the favor by saving her and keeping her safe from everyone, including Frollo…

Wow. Hugo knows his tragedy like the back of his hand. The Hunchback, his first novel, is quite a tragic piece that I can’t even write the synopsis without toning down to serious mode. That is why I don’t understand the animated film adaptation. Talking stone gargoyles? Really??? It’s an insult to the genius of Hugo, the way it’s an insult to the genius of Hans Christian Andersen not to kill the little mermaid in the end. I’m all for happy endings to keep viewing minors smiling and trauma-free, but then give it a whole new title and leave the classics alone!

The Hunchback is a tragedy, was meant to be one, and it would not have worked if it wasn’t; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, love is in the center of all of it. Actually, one character is. It is not Quasimodo who sets the wheels of the story in motion really, but the enigmatic gypsy. Esmeralda fascinates men like Frollo who can’t help but throw priestly caution away if only to have her. It is she who gets smitten by Phoebus, who is only too willing to go on trysts with her. And it is the young girl whom the bell-ringer falls head-over-heels in love with, going against the man he has grown to practically consider his father rather than master. Esmeralda is the common denominator in this weird love quadrangle of sorts.

Oh, to love and be loved! However romantic that sounds, though, the main idea in my opinion is not that famous four-letter word. The love theme is so broad and can be quite predictable for any fiction. Great fiction goes beyond the broad and predictable.

The Hunchback is a story about a sense of humanity, finding a sense of belonging, and how human frailties can utterly destroy anyone. It subtly yet effectively shows how acts of kindness can mean the world and move mountains. Esmeralda’s kindness towards a “creature” so abhorred and feared has made quite an impact on the misunderstood, unfortunate soul. It is the closest he has come to feeling truly loved and what is he to offer this angel but love in return, even if it means his demise?

Hugo is a true romanticist. Only a few can romanticize tragedy the way he does. Incidentally, while re-reading, I am reminded of similar characters in other great stories. Esmeralda can very well be Helen of Troy in Iliad (Homer) for whose beauty men are ready to risk their lives. Alchemist Frollo is alchemist Frankenstein (Mary Bysshe Shelley) with Quasimodo as, in a way, the lonely, so-called Frankenstein’s Monster he has “created.” The hunchback assistant Igor also does come to mind except he has been a product of popular culture, not of Shelley’s novel. Anyway, these are all coincidence, for sure, but I am reminded how classics become classics in the first place: they are written by great storytellers.

Paris in the 1480s is the backdrop of this masterpeice. Through Hugo’s prolific, indefatigable writing, we get an overall sense of the city—sights, smell, sounds, great unrest hanging in the air—as he walks us through the streets. The narrator goes at great lengths describing medieval architecture and gothic art, which are most certainly already missing or ruined in the 19th century, Hugo’s time.

“In addition…he was also absorbed in the study of medieval Christianity, its saints, martyrs, churches, and its faith. Thus Hugo incorporated into the novel his knowledge of a little-understood Christian era” (Raymond R. Canon in his provided Introduction). I am amazed at the amount of studying and research the author must have poured into this to be able to share to his readers what it must have felt like living during the time of Quasimodo.

This presents much of a challenge to the reader, though. Quite the enthusiast of the aforementioned areas, of theater (he was a playwright prior to becoming a novelist, after all) and of history, I suppose, he goes overboard and even devotes entire chapters discussing details and information that if deleted, would not make any big amount of difference in the story. Maybe even fellow enthusiasts will mostly still find reading parts of it quite a tedious task.

It’s not enough that the language used is old, but the information overload…Eeeps. I am not sure if it’s harder to read in its original French version, but my unabridged English one kept me muttering, “ON with the actual story already!”

The first parts are mostly spent describing things, naming names, tackling theology and history, so much more than even the average French reader can take. In fact, I personally was tempted to skip them at times. Frollo gets to show up at least in the first parts though not immediately. Unfortunately, it is already at Book 1’s Chapter 5 where we actually get to read about Quasimodo for the first time, and Chapter 6 when we first see just a mention of La Esmeralda, who we only really get to know in Book 2 Chapter 3. This tendency to overtell, as I am calling it, turns off many readers so that they do not continue long enough to actually get to the real meat of the story. In fact, one would think the protagonist in it is this guy Pierre Gringoire whom we follow in much of the book’s first parts.

As it is Hugo’s first novel, it makes me forgive him. He was probably too eager to share what he knew and write everything he wanted to. I can say, too, that I am glad for the success of this book because it gave way to his more famous, more loved novel Les Miserables. Through the overtelling, we find hints of the French Revolution—him being a supporter of such movement—that is the very core of Les Miserables. There are both the hated leaders and the young scholars in them. In hindsight, I feel that despite the playwright Gringoire’s circumstances, he serves as Hugo’s representation of himself in more ways than one. He simply has to be there.

Tragedy or otherwise, does The Huncback show that good triumphs over evil? Definitely. Do we get our expected happy endings? Hmnn…It depends on how you’ll see it. If you’re any good at reading between the not-so-secret lines, I suppose you already have an inkling of how it goes.

I don’t know about you, but I won’t mind reading this beautiful book again. Just maybe not too soon for this bit of a heavy reading. Meanwhile, I suggest you start now and read through the whole thing. You cannot appreciate this awesome piece of work without digesting everything about it. Have pain, will gain. It’s either you like this book or not, no real middle ground here. If you want to stay in your happy place, be my guest, ditch the book and enjoy your Disney. But who’s fooling who?

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Book #840
Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina is the tragic tale of  Anna Karenina, a married aristocrat and socialite, who betrays her husband by having an affair with a count. The count, Vronsky, pressures Anna into making a decision about leaving her husband; if she does, he says he will marry her, but Anna is reluctant to leave. She feels the pressures of Russian society – she is, after all, the wife of a government official – and is rather insecure and vulnerable. After fleeing to Italy with Vronsky, they eventually return to Russia and Anna finds herself ostracised, which does nothing for her insecurities. This begins to take a toll on her relationship with Vronsky; she is convinced he is unfaithful, despite his assurances that he is not, and she becomes quite possessive. The story ends rather tragically, but it seems a fitting end to such a tale.

There are many themes to Anna Karenina: jealousy, faith, (in)fidelity, social change, the value of the country life​, death. These were important aspects of Russian society in the 1800s. It is suspected that there are elements of Tolstoy’s own life reflected in his writing of this novel; a quick delve into his history is enough to see why these themes occur again and again in his writing.

​It is a moving story, passionately and beautifully written. Some may find Tolstoy’s style cumbersome, but I enjoy it. I like the personalities he creates, their relationships and interactions. They tend towards the overly dramatic, but that was the style of the time, and such a tragic and passionate tale requires a style that reflects this. I found the character of Anna intriguing – such a beautiful woman with everything in her favour, yet she is incredibly insecure and lacking in confidence. Vronsky irritated and appealed to me, in equal measure.

There are some lengthy passages that left me feeling glassy-eyed; Tolstoy has a propensity for describing things in great detail (as with the military maneouvres described in War and Peace), but skim-reading them didn’t detract from the novel at all.

This is a classic that, in my opinion, is well worth reading; I give it 4/5 stars.

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Book #876
Reviewer: Lizzie C.

Great ExpectationsThis novel is focused around an orphan by the name of Pip. He lives with his sister and her husband Joe in Kent near the marshes. Joe is a fatherly figure that Pip feels affection, from whereas his sister is harsh and seems to just want to continually put a guilt trip onto Pip for her being so kind as to bring him up.

Pip’s life is not easy; what with his sister’s lack of affection and little money they live a fairly simple life with little pleasure. Joe is a blacksmith and ranked somewhat in the lower classes in society of which there is seemingly no escape from.

One night which I have to mention, Pip has a chance encounter with escaped convict Magwitch. This turns out to be of greater significance than previously thought, but this does not become apparent until later in the novel.

When Pip is introduced to Miss Havisham (a rich lady living in London) via his uncle, he begins to feel ashamed of his life, his clothes and social standing. Through Miss Havisham, he meets Estella who, whilst beautiful, is cold hearted and fairly dismissive of Pip whilst at the same time almost willing him to love her so that she can turn him down. She has been influenced heavily by Miss Havisham whose life more or less stopped some years ago. She is dressed in her wedding dress for a wedding that never happened. She stopped her clocks that day and has lived in the darkness of her house ever since. She is bitter and revengeful, a character you want to know more about in my opinion.

Pip falls in love with Estella due to her beauty but she forever holds him at arm’s length. Miss Havisham encourages Pip’s feelings; she knows Estella’s ways being her teacher and she seems to get pleasure out of the feelings not being returned Pip’s way. Estella is never far away from Pip’s thoughts throughout the novel, even when his life takes a drastic turn.

He is soon advised, as the novel progresses, that a benefactor wishes Pip to become a gentleman and to have a privileged life. Pip is to leave his current life and to move to London in order to advance. He allows this to occur but is not advised of who the benefactor is until further into the novel. He turns his back on his previous life and seems to wish to distance himself from it, and from Joe who cannot change his own social standing.

Pip encounters various characters in this time in London and makes some decisions that impact on the direction of his life. As the novel progresses you feel that Pip has let go of some of his values and has forgotten how good Joe was to him as a child – but only temporarily as events occur that push them together for a short time once more.

I also believe it could be seen as a portrayal of classes being high and low and how the two interacted in that era, especially through Pip’s change of status and how he realigns his relationship with his past life and Joe.

I would recommend this novel; it is not a complicated read but there are underlying story lines and characters of interest. I personally believe it could be read by a teenager but I still got enjoyment out of it as an adult. Perhaps I had the benefit of more insight into relationships and their workings, and perhaps a deeper understanding of class, but on a purely reading-for-pleasure level, it works well and is worth reading.

The Nose – Nikolai Gogol

Book #919

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TN

Welcome to what is likely to be the shortest of the 1001 Books reviews.  The Nose by Nikolai Gogol, in the edition of his tales that I have, is a whole 23 pages long.

That makes reviewing it rather difficult and rather simple in the same breath.  Here is my précis of the story.

We begin by meeting a working class barber, Ivan Yakovlevich waking up and having breakfast.  He asks his wife for the freshly baked bread, which he proceeds to cut in two.  On cutting it and examining the inside of his half he finds a nose.  Not just any nose, but that of a regular client, a Major Kovaliov.  Horrified, and unable to remember if he had pulled or cut his client’s nose off he heads out to dispose of it.

We then shift to the story of the now noseless Major.  He wakes up with a flat pancake face right where his nose should be.  Through this narrative we find that the nose is living a life of its own and is unwilling to return to the Major’s face.

Hmmm.  Yes.  Suspend that disbelief.

I won’t tell you what occurs in the last section of the story.  It is short, but you might as well have some sort of “unknown” ending should you choose to read this.

It is certainly the strangest tale I have read to date.  Frankly I had to turn to Wikipedia to even have a clue as to the underlying ‘meaning’ of it all.  I was struggling to find one.  It is satire.  For those with no real connection to Russian literature and culture this went mostly over my head.  And in the translation that I read, the Major does not wake up from a dream (which is a possible version you may encounter), and therefore it is considered to be a precursor to magical realism.  Well, a nose with a life of it’s own, masquerading as a civil official?  Certainly is the impossible occurring within the confines of an otherwise reasonable story.

It does, apparently, have potential themes around castration, impotence and similar.
Fine.
I suppose if I sat and squinted a lot I could make that connection.

I cannot genuinely recommend this, but then again, at around an hour of reading time perhaps you won’t mind making the effort.  If you do, or if you have a much greater understanding of the Russian idiom and culture, then please come back and explain it to me.  I’d like to know what I spent my irreplaceable hour on.  Thanks.

Happy reading everyone.