Monday, 16 August 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was a book I found impossible to put down, and one that will stay with me for a long time. It had an odd structure, written from three perspectives and without any real chapters, but I really just couldn’t stop turning the pages. For a book, that can only be high praise!

Esme Lennox has spent nearly all of her adult life in a psychiatric institute, and when the institution is being closed down, and all the patients re-located, she is judged to be no danger to herself or society, so is being released into the community. Her named family member is Iris Lockhart, her great-niece, but the first problem here is that Iris doesn’t know of her existence since she had always been told that her grandmother was an only child. And just to throw another spanner in the works, Kitty, Iris’s grandmother is herself in an institution, with fairly advanced alzheimers, so is unable to answer when Iris asks about Esme.

Esme and Kitty grew up in India, in a relatively well-to-do, society family, where there were huge expectations placed upon them on the proper way to behave. Having suffered a horrific family tragedy they return from India to Scotland when the sisters are still young, to live with their paternal grandmother, who makes even more of proprieties and conforming than their parents. Kitty falls into line with this, and even revels in it, but Esme becomes more and more averse to the ideas purported by her family, and wants to go her own way, and do her own thing. She doesn’t like dancing, enjoys books and doesn’t want to get married. Her ‘unruly’ behaviour leads her parents to despair of her, although in fact all she is doing is refusing to conform to expectations.

So why was Esme locked away at sixteen years of age, and why does nobody know of her existence? What secrets are waiting to be discovered? The answer to that is plenty, but they are revealed slowly and in a very non-linear way throughout the book. The book jumps around both from point of view and in time, as it is told from the viewpoints of Iris, Esme and Kitty. From Iris we see what is happening with Esme and how she goes about dealing with the knowledge and physical presence of a relative she didn’t know she had. The sections told from Esme’s point of view are a little more confusing, as she jumps between the present and the past, as something that happens will remind her of her previous life and she goes off into a reverie about life in the asylum, or before she was committed. And then probably the most illuminating sections are the chunks of internal stream of consciousness thought from Kitty, whose sections are difficult to read, but read in conjunction with Esme’s memories, eventually create a complete picture of the events that lead to Esme’s committal and abandonment.

The two sisters are portrayed really well through the varying narratives, and it’s easy to see how Esme was different when she is juxtaposed with her sister, who tried to do everything that was expected of her, make the good marriage, take up embroidery and the like. That juxtaposition was necessary, both to illuminate how a well-to-do girl of this era should behave, and show how Esme’s rebellion would have been viewed by their social circle. Ultimately though it is Esme I felt sorry for, and Kitty who comes across as selfish, self-absorbed and superficial. I actually felt angry reading this book at what Esme went through at the hands of her family, more and more so as more of the truth was revealed in glimpses from the sisters memories.

I really enjoyed this book, particularly the actual act of reading the disjointed narratives and piecing them all together to try and decide what really happened. It does however paint a pretty damning picture of life for women in the early part of the 20th century, particularly if they want to veer even slightly off course from what is expected of them. I think this is what interested me most about this story. This subject has cropped up in a few novels, and each time it does I get the urge to find out more about the reality of this, and then ever do. Maybe this time I will.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is Philip Pullman’s retelling of the story of the life of Jesus. He doesn’t actually change much in the story of Jesus’ life, but by the addition of a twin brother (Christ), from whose viewpoint his book is written, puts a different perspective on the story.

Jesus and Christ are very different from the moment of their birth. Jesus is outgoing and headstrong and often in trouble, whereas Christ is quiet and introverted and is often found getting the young Jesus out of trouble. Their differences run over into their theological beliefs and here they really are at odds. Christ believes in the ultimate power of an all encompassing church

“Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional elders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth”

And Jesus’ reply to this is a pretty conclusive rebuke

“What you describe sounds like the work of Satan. God will bring about his kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses.”

Jesus’ life follows the path we all know so well from biblical stories, but with some clever twists on the miraculous events that define his life. The book is scattered with common stories from the bible, but their miraculous nature is called into question by Christ’s running commentary on these events. For Jesus’ life is chronicled by Christ, who after tempting him to turn stones to bread in the wilderness (sound familiar), observes Jesus’ preaching from a distance. Other familiar stories include the lame man who got up and walked, only to lie down again as soon as he realised he had lost his living, the steward persuaded to find the wine he had hidden at the wedding, and Jesus persuading the 5000 to share whatever food they had so everybody could eat, including his loaves and fishes!

Christ doesn’t write the events down exactly as they happen though. Jesus’ words are manipulated by Christ, and with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, whom Christ meets periodically to pass over is writings. Between them, these two concoct a plan to create the bigger truth from the actual history, with the ultimate aim of creating a church based around Jesus’ teachings, but bigger and better, representing the kingdom of god on earth.

“There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting the truth into history. You are the word of God”

This book is re-telling a story, and it’s emphasis is on stories, and on how the way stories can be used to change and even control the way people think. As well as the events in Jesus’ life, many of his parables are included and the style of this book is very like a parable. I love the way this book spends a lot of time re-telling Jesus’ parables to express what the author believes to be Jesus’ message, and is in itself a parable on how stories should be read simply as stories, with the meaning to be drawn out, not taken as gospel truth. (I just felt the need to use that phrase!)

It is an interesting take on the story, with Jesus being used to create the very church he had already stated he despised. His compassion for the poor, weak and abused is emphasised heavily in this book, and organised religion takes a fairly substantial battering here. Using the knowledge of the abuse of power that has been perpetrated by the Christian church throughout history, Pullman puts prophetic words into Jesus’ mouth in a couple of long monologues towards the end of the book. The point is simple enough, reduced to its most basic, it would be institutionalised religion is bad and equates to a few people with power having excessive control over the many. At no point is faith or belief called into question though. And somehow, the end managed to have a twist, difficult for a story we all know the ending to. It was a good story, with a lot of things to think about, and definitely a novel take on the well documented idea that biblical stories really are just that, stories.