Monday, 24 January 2011

Barbara Trapido: Sex and Stravinsky

It’s a wonderful title for a wonderful novel. I’ve loved most of Barbara Trapido’s books - my favourite was Temples of Delight - but I didn’t like her most recent Frankie and Stankie. I was sent advance drafts by my agent (we shared the same) and was told it was a memoir. Something about the form of it troubled me, though I wasn’t brave enough to say as much. But when it was published it was subtly altered and classified as a novel. I still didn’t feel it worked as fiction and I didn’t think the writing measured up to some of her previous work either. Now I wonder whether perhaps that was because it was just too autobiographical. Anyway, I was disappointed, and so, when Sex and Stravinsky was published I didn’t rush out to buy it.

We were both supposed to be performing at the ill-fated Christchurch Literature Festival which was cancelled due to the earthquake last September, so I never got to meet the author, but the bookshops were full of the novel. I picked a copy up, read a few pages and was hooked. Too expensive (and too heavy!) to buy abroad, I waited until I got a good deal on the paperback in the UK - one of these 3 for 2 in W.H. Smith. The novel is an absolute delight. It is witty, ascerbic, lyrical and poignant, sometimes all at the same time. I read it twice.

There are 7 main characters; Australian Caroline, blonde, six feet tall, is a high achiever who can do her own plumbing, make designer clothes out of chair covers, but can’t cope with her own mother. She is married to sweet natured South African Josh who is an expert in mime, dance and Stravinsky but finds it difficult to say ‘no’ to anyone. They have a teenage daughter called Zoe who doesn’t get on with her mother, and they live in the south of England, in a converted bus, because all their money has to go to keep Caroline’s demanding mother - the ‘Witch-Woman’ and Caroline’s younger sister, ‘The Less Fortunate’.

Then there’s South African Hattie who once went to school with Josh, who currently writes ballet books for girls and is married (not happily) to wealthy entrepreneur Herman. She has an impossible daughter called Cat, and they live in Durban.

And then there’s Jack - or is he Jacques, or Giacomo? He is something of a mystery.

These disparate characters are all destined to be collected together in one time and place at the end of the novel where their complicated relationships are resolved with all the expert choreography of the dance.

When the novel opens it’s the 1970s and Josh has arrived in London and meets the exotic Caroline in a student house. It’s a collision of opposites that works well, until Caroline’s father dies and her impossible mother arrives in England with a one-way ticket. As the novel moves through time, Caroline will do anything to gain her mother’s affection and approval, including the sacrifice of her own husband and child. Barbara Trapido makes the relationship with the monster mother totally convincing, both tragic and hilarious at the same time. Josh, who puts up with everything for the sake of peace and his beloved daughter Zoe, thinks wistfully of his first love Hattie, who left him for the more forceful, ‘rugger bugger’, Herman.

Meanwhile in Durban, there’s a growing distance between Hattie and her husband and the daughter who takes after her father. Both despise Hattie and her love of ballet, the books for girls she writes so well and her chintzy, old world taste in furnishings and decor. Hattie thinks nostalgically of Josh and the budding relationship that never got a chance to form.

Things begin to change with the arrival of Jack/Jacques/Giacomo, who rents the studio at the bottom of Hattie’s garden, and the arrangement of an international conference in dance and mime in Durban, to which both Josh and Hattie are invited.

A complex back-story is woven together with a skill that leaves you breathless and you arrive at the denouement at exactly the right moment with a gasp of astonishment. Nothing is as it seems. My favourite part of the story is the moment when Caroline finds her mother’s will and undergoes a complete change of character. I wanted to shout ‘Yes! Yes,Yes!’ And when she crushed the antique porcelain into the kitchen floor with a mallet I was with her all the way.

Alongside Rose Tremain’s Trespass, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, Amy Sackville’s The Still Point and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, this has to be among my top ten books for the past year. And it’s a good reminder to authors that getting an attention grabbing title for your book is essential. It’s the starting point for that very important relationship. First, catch your reader .........

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A.S. Byatt: The Children's Book

In the age of the three minute sound-bite and novels designed to be consumed at a gallop, A.S. Byatt’s work appears to come from another world where the word ‘literary’ was regarded as a complimentary adjective. The Children’s Book is a Victorian novel - it’s intelligent, full of description, philosophical discussion, and discursive authorial comment. Forget tightly constructed plots and narrative hooks.   The story-line is linear, sprawling through space and time.  It’s a fascinating read - but you have to give it your full attention.

Living at the turn of the last century, the Bohemian Wellwood family are the central subjects, with a large cast of children and adults. They are at the centre of the arts and crafts movement and, just as in Possession, the worlds of William Morris and Oscar Wilde are vividly brought to life.  The men are bankers and artists;  the women are dabbling in the suffragist movement,  fighting for the 'life of the mind'.  The matriarch, Olive Wellwood, is an author, writing fairy tales for children.

Byatt said that when she wrote the book she was interested in the idea that people who wrote for children were often not very good with their own. ‘I noticed that the children of the great writers for children often came to unhappy ends - even suicide - and this interested me dramatically. Kenneth Grahame's son, for whom The Wind in the Willows was ostensibly written, lay down on a railway line when he was at Oxford. Two of the Llewellyn-Davies boys, for whom Barrie wrote Peter Pan, ended in suicide.’

In the novel, each of Olive’s children has his or her own book - a special tale she keeps in a cupboard and adds to as they grow. But there are dark secrets concealed in fairytales - children who are other people’s children, stepmothers who are forced to wear red hot clogs and dance until they die, pretty young mermaids willing to be maimed and dumb for love. This is the world that the novel explores - the children’s real lives above the water and their darker reflection submerged beneath. Things are never what they seem and everything has consequences.

I really enjoyed the book, but it isn’t for everyone.