Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Waterland" by Graham Swift

Waterland was my first introduction to Graham Swift. My sweet and thoughtful husband bought a copy for me about six months ago when he saw it at a secondhand bookstore (and I believe him, even if I have no memory of this) because, having read it about fifteen years ago, he knew I would like it. And, as usual, he was right.

This story takes place in the Fenlands (basically reclaimed swamps) of England. It is full of secrets and mysteries (just my thing!), both from the present and from various times past. It's as if everything is hidden under a heavy cloth. As the story unfolds, the narrator gives us glimpses under this corner and that, gradually allowing the outline of what's hidden to be seen. (Have I used that analogy before, in describing another book? I feel like I must have. But I don't care, because it works nicely, and preserves the effect of reading this novel.)

The narrator is a history teacher who finds himself following tangents during his lectures. He ends up relating his personal history rather than what would be expected from the syllabus. There's death (or murder?), war, kidnapping, insanity, really strong ale, incest, a potatohead, and emerging sexuality. And eels. Can't forget the eels. But it's not at all maudlin or melodramatic, as such a list might suggest; it's all treated with subtlety and suspense.

I'm somewhat surprised I was previously unfamiliar with Swift, who has had nine novels published over the past 3 1/2 decades. I'll definitely want to try another one of his books at some point. And I think I know which one will be next: Last Orders. Not only did it win the Booker Prize in 1996, but my copy of Waterland includes it in the same volume. Can't beat that kind of convenience.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"The Scapegoat" by Daphne du Maurier

I feel like I've been on a bit of a Daphne du Maurier binge recently. Though I guess it hasn't been as excessive as all that, encompassing only two books: The Scapegoat and a (not very short) story collection entitled Don't Look Now. (I'm actually not even finished with the stories yet--it's our current bedtime read.)

It's been an enjoyable time, as binges go. I have loved du Maurier ever since reading Rebecca in high school, though I haven't made it very far through her body of work. I find her writing suspenseful in an understated and subtle way. In general.

The Scapegoat is the story of an English man--a perfect French speaker--who happens to run into his exact double in France (one of a small handful of unlikely plot devices, but I was able to forgive it with a little effort). John and Jean spend a drunken evening discussing their shock and amazement and joking about the possibility of switching lives . . . or, John thought they were joking, anyway. He wakes the next morning with a hangover, all of Jean's belongings, and none of his own. Half bewildered and half outraged, John slides into Jean's life, missing every opportunity to rectify the situation.

Don't Look Now includes one of du Maurier's more famous short stories, "The Birds." Having read it, I'm now almost certain that I've never seen the Hitchcock movie based on the story, and I have no idea how that happened. Hasn't everyone seen it? On the other hand, as the owner of two parakeets, I'm not sure I want to see it . . .

So, everything considered, good times were had by all. My only problem with du Maurier is that I feel like she can't always pull off the ending. I'm not sure I was on board with the way things were left between Jean and John. The end of the eponymous story in Don't Look Now was almost silly. And "The Birds" left things completely unresolved . . . although I suppose that gives the reader the ability to ponder what might happen next, and why it happened at all.