The Moon of Gomrath

It was a fascinating exercise, after reading Alan Garner's Boneland, to return to the previous book in the series, written more than fifty years before. The Moon of Gomrath was first published in 1963; my edition is from 2002. (I say 'return' but in fact I don't think I have ever read this book before, though I'm sure I've read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the first volume of the trilogy.)

The Moon of Gomrath and Boneland, separated by decades, are very different in style. Boneland is an adult's book, spare, powerful, layered with meaning, but so stripped back it's almost like deciphering poetry. In contrast, Gomrath is high fantasy, with elves and dwarves, a wizard and a witch, who speak in heightened language. 'Are we to talk until all that has ever slept has woken?' That kind of thing. The two children, Colin and Susan, remain largely blank ciphers. They are brave, curious, rescourceful, as required by the story, but as people they remain utterly opaque.

I'm glad I read Gomrath as it illuminated several elements of Boneland -- Colin's memories of being held prisoner by the Morrigan, the witch-figure of the early books (who may be revealed as a more complex figure in the last volume), his hatred of rhodedendrons, and of course the familiar landscape, which is simultaneously concrete and numinous.

In Boneland, Colin has been left behind to cope with the tumultuous events of the first two books. There is a theory that story that unfolds in these books is actually the attempt of a juvenile Colin to make sense of a more prosaic disappearance of his sister. It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not sure I buy it!

I don't think I'll seek out The Weirdstone. Garner himself has described it as 'a fairly bad book' and when I picked it up a few years ago I was dismayed at the first few pages. If it falls my way, I'll take another look, for the sake of Boneland, but otherwise I'll let it lie.


The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

A hugely entertaining concept, executed in perfect, chatty style. Ian Mortimer's Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England provides a tourist's handbook to the fourteenth century, focusing on the details of everyday life -- food, clothing, what you can expect to see in a town, the sights of London (mostly gone now), the perils of medical attention, how the legal system works and much more.

This book gives a terrific overview of medieval English society and beliefs, but it's also packed with fascinating titbits. None of those sturdy peasant folk would have worn any knitted garments, because knitting hadn't been invented yet. Rabbits were only introduced to England in the twelfth century! No potatoes, tomatoes or (surprisingly to me) carrots. English wine was made until the end of the century when the weather changed. The Black Death, mid-century, turned the feudal structure on its head as villages were deserted, lords competed for scarce labour, and a whole country mourned the loss of a quarter of the population. Men's clothes underwent a complete transformation over a hundred years, from long formless sacks to tight, short, sexy doublets and hose; meanwhile, women's fashions stayed almost static! That must be the last time in Western history that's happened.

Finally, one of those strange coincidences that often occur in my reading journey: the last chapter, on literature, contained a discussion of the anonymous Gawain poet. As it happens, this poet and two of his poems, Gawain and The Green Knight and Pearl, were discussed on the Guardian reading group thread in the context of Alan Garner's Boneland, which contains many allusions to both poems for those who were alert to them. Funny how these links pop up so unexpectedly!

I raced through this book at top speed, learned heaps and had a wonderfully enjoyable trip to the Middle Ages.


The Chimneys of Green Knowe

Have you ever seen such a spoiler-y cover? Guess what, in the last chapter, the house burns down! In the US, the title is The Treasure of Green Knowe, which is just as revealing.

This book is a very old childhood favourite, first discovered in the Mt Hagen library. It was my favourite of all the Green Knowe books and I re-read it many times. For some reason, the first volume of the series, The Children of Green Knowe, wasn't in the library, and nor was A Stranger at Green Knowe, the one with the escaped gorilla -- many years later, when reading that one to a young Alice, she made me stop reading before the end, because she couldn't bear to hear what was to become of poor Hanno.

But I digress. The Convent book group is reading The Chimneys of Green Knowe because our theme next month is blindness. Young Tolly, staying with his great-grandmother at the ancient house of Green Knowe, is told the story of 18th century Susan, whose sea captain father brings her back Jacob as a companion. After many misadventures, and the final conflagration, the two triumph over their enemies, and Tolly uses what he's learned from their story to save the day.

There are several problematic elements of this book which didn't trouble me too much as a child, but which might make me think carefully before sharing it with a young person today. Jacob is purchased in a slave market in the Caribbean (though the author is careful to tell us that slavery is repugnant, and he is instantly set free -- however, he remains as a servant to the captain and to "Missy Susan" for the rest of his life.) He is described with every well-meaning but racist cliche you can think of: woolly hair, rolling eyes, sooty skin, the lot, and he is mercilessly bullied by Susan's older brother -- dressed in the livery of an organ-grinder's monkey, forced up a chimney and numerous other humiliations. But Jacob is no victim. He exacts his own revenges, both subtle and overt, and his lively spirit is never subdued.

There is a lot of racist language too, never explicitly condemned -- but as a child reader, I got the message that only the unpleasant characters used it. I wonder now if one reason I was so drawn to this book was because it dealt with friendship between black and white children, and at the time I was living in the heavily colonial atmosphere of 1970s PNG. There were black students at my international school, and I had some among my friends, but there weren't many of them. Perhaps unconsciously I was trying to make sense of it all?

One vivid image that stayed with me was the creepy embroidery that Susan's mother creates at the end of the book, made from human hair. That gave me the shivers. And she sews it at the behest of fortune-telling gypsies, who are described, by the way, in unambiguously racist terms that seriously disturbed me this time around. It's odd that Boston clearly feels sympathy for Jacob and the way he's treated, but can't seem to extend this same sympathy to the figures of the dirty, conniving, deceitful, greedy gypsies. Which is a shame.


The Anchoress

Robyn Cadwallader's The Anchoress has been on my radar since its release a couple of years ago. I love reading about nuns; one of my favourite books at high school was This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

The anchoress of the title is a kind of super-nun, not just committing herself to poverty, obedience and chastity, but renouncing the world entirely, vowing to live out her life of prayer and contemplation alone in a tiny, windowless stone cell attached to the side of the church. I must admit that when the demands of family and the modern world become too much, I can totally see the appeal of such a solitary, scholarly life!

But Sarah has other reasons apart from piety to wish for enclosure, and she doesn't find it so easy to separate herself from the outside world, or the demands of her body. Paradoxically, the sensory deprivation of her cell leads to enhanced sensitivity, from the subtle tastes of her bland food, the noises of village chatter and birdsong, to the touch of stone and paper. Like it or not, she is part of the village. Forbidden to speak to men (apart from priests), she is sought out by the village women for counsel or just a sympathetic ear. She is also haunted by the imagined ghosts of her predecessors -- holy Agnes and rebellious Isabella, who broke her vows. In the end, Sarah finds a middle way somewhere between the two.

You might think that reading about a woman shut up in a room would be about as interesting as watching paint dry. How wrong you would be. The tiny details of Sarah's daily existence become as significant to the reader as they are to her, and we are also privy to the wider politics of church and estate that make Sarah the centre of power struggles. I did wonder whether the 13th century villagers would be able to articulate their sense of unfairness with their lot as openly as they do here; but perhaps it's impossible to reproduce a medieval mindset that a modern reader would be able to comprehend.

A great, and unexpectedly absorbing read from an Australian author.


A Likely Lad

A birthday present for myself from Brown and Bunting! This poor old paperback from 1973 (first published in 1971) is foxed and mottled and probably lay in a cardboard box in somebody's garage for the last forty years. But I welcome it gladly into my collection.

I hadn't read A Likely Lad before, and it's set in the familiar late 19th century Gillian Avery milieu. Avery does a wonderful line in diffident children, which appeals to me hugely as a diffident child myself. Her protagonists are tormented by domineering adults, mortified by impudent siblings, and agonise over their own perceived failings. This time our hero is Willy Overs, a quiet, school-loving boy who is saddled with an ambitious father who dreams of Willy ascending the social ladder as a bumptious 'thruster'. Poor Willy knows that he doesn't have it in him, but while the adults around him feud and squabble, Willy's own innate kindness and sense of fairness end up winning the day in unexpected fashion.

I really enjoyed looking up the streets and suburbs of Manchester where this book is set. I discovered I could even see the imposing Manchester Town Hall, which plays an important symbolic part in the story, in impressive 3D! What did we do before Google Earth? I've consulted it for Boneland, Call the Midwife and now this novel, and it's added to my reading experience immensely -- not quite as good as visiting the setting, but still pretty satisfying.


Call The Midwife

The television series of Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs by Jennifer Worth, was dropped into an early evening weekend time-slot on the ABC -- the traditional home of quirky, sentimental dramas. And while the world of Call the Midwife does have its share of quirk, and sentiment too, it also contains much grimmer social realism and a glimpse of a life that has now disappeared (in the UK at least).

Worth writes of two neglected subjects. Firstly, she describes the hardships of daily life in the dockland suburbs of post-war London, places like Poplar, the Isle of Dogs, Millwall, Stepney and Limehouse, where tenements housed families of ten or twelve in two rooms, some without running water or sanitation. And secondly, she writes in fascinating (some might say gruesome) detail about the vocation of midwifery. As she asks in her introduction, why are there not more memoirs by midwives? There are plenty by doctors and nurses, but few dealing with this most intimate, joyful, and dangerous of professions. Perhaps because it's still seen as 'women's business'?

While there are humorous stories here, and characters familiar from the TV series, like towering, posh Chummie, earthy Sister Evangelina, and dotty Sister Monica Joan, Worth doesn't shy from the darker side of her work in the slums -- prostitution, violence, the legacy of the workhouse, deprivation and despair. The mixture of light and shade is utterly engaging; Call the Midwife is a thoroughly readable memoir, and I'm not surprised it's been so successful.


Gay & Lesbian, Then & Now

Gay & Lesbian, Then & Now, by Robert Reynolds* and Shirleene Robinson, is very topical, with the "voluntary postal survey" hanging over us (at the time of writing, the High Court is due to decide this afternoon whether it will go ahead). It's based on a series of oral history interviews, ranging from Merv in his eighties to Alex in her early twenties, and traces the evolution of Australian society from a world where homosexual acts were illegal (for men) and gayness was seen as either a crime to be prosecuted, or at best, an illness to be "cured," to a world where it's possible to grow up gay without experiencing any significant stigma at all. (Mind you, the last is possible only in the enclaves of the socially progressive inner suburbs -- which is where we happen to live!)

Through thirteen individual stories, the interviewers skilfully explore a variety of histories and personalities to build a fascinating picture of the differences and similarities in the gay and lesbian experience. For most interview subjects, the overwhelming desire is to be accepted as 'normal' and 'ordinary' -- a desire which is starkly articulated in the campaign for marriage equality. However, as a person on the fringes of the queer scene in the 1990s, I well remember a time when that desire would have been seen as a betrayal of the radical queer agenda -- why settle for normal and ordinary when you could start a revolution? The authors do touch on this dilemma, but it doesn't seem to be shared by many of their subjects.

This is a totally engaging and illuminating read.

*Full disclosure: Robert and I were close friends who met at college and later shared a house for several years.


Falconer's Lure

It's only a year since I talked about Falconer's Lure, so I won't rabbit on about it again at any length. It's not my favourite Antonia Forest book, but it provides so much background to the books that follow that it's essential reading. It's a summer holiday book, with falconry instead of ponies -- well, actually there are ponies, too!

The reason I've been re-reading it is because Michelle Cooper has been doing a wonderful read-through on Memoranda. Highly recommended!

And I'll take any excuse to read Antonia Forest. I can't wait till Michelle tackles End of Term, which is where the Marlow series really takes off.


The Game of Silence

After reading Bruce Handy's Wild Things, I rushed to track down Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series, which tells a Little House on the Prairie-style story from the Native American point of view. Annoyingly, my local library doesn't hold any of Erdrich's children's titles (though they have four or five of her adult novels). And when I tried the Kindle, they had the whole Birchbark House series -- except the first one! Why???

So because I'm impatient, I settled for buying the second book, The Game of Silence, just to get an idea of what they are all about.

Nine year old Omakayas (Little Frog) is part of a nineteenth century Ojibiwe community living in what is now Minnesota. Though the story mostly deals with the daily chores, seasonal tasks and special events of the year, the background is sombre -- four representatives have been dispatched to discover the white government's policy and whether their treaty will be honoured. No surprise at the end of the book when Fishtail returns to report that the promises have been broken and the Ojibwe must leave their traditional lands.

This novel did remind me very much of the Little House books, with their positive outlook on the small struggles and victories of daily life, with a grim backstory. And they are a necessary corrective to the one-sided account of the Ingalls Wilder tales, where the "Indians" are at worst a terrifying threat, and at best, exotic aliens. One of the most striking scenes of the Little House series occurs at the end of Little House on the Prairie, when a long line of Osage ride past the Ingalls' cabin, proud, silent and utterly alien. The Birchbark House series gives a lively voice to those silenced people, and in these books, it's the chimookomanag, the white people, who are the alien strangers.