The February Reading ReviewPosted: 28 February 2011
I’m a little disappointed in myself that I haven’t read as many books this month as I did in January! However I am still very much on target with the 50 book challenge I started this year.
The books I chose in February seem to carry a mutual theme, that of strong women living inspiring lives and exchanging the socially acceptable in a struggle for empowerment and freedom. I’m not sure whether my choices were deliberate on a subconscious level or just random, but they made a good month’s reading nonetheless.
8. Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore
“Finally unveiled later that year, the twelve-foot crowning statue, covered in gold leaf, represented not only an uncompromising belief in individual liberty over state interference but also an inspiring vision of female power and independence. It was a sight that the young Mary Eleanor would not forget.”
Wow. You could be forgiven for believing that this novel is complete fiction, but in actual fact – it IS actual fact – and it’s staggering to think that every detail of this extraordinary tale of Georgian domestic abuse and divorce is true.
Though it felt a bit bogged down at the beginning with the sheer depth of background information, Wedlock soon became an electrifying novel which I could not put down. I believe I read the last four or five chapters, over a third of the book, in one sitting. The fact that every character from heroine to villain (and everyone in between) was real is taken in stride. Wendy Moore is amazingly gifted at balancing hard facts with intruiging prose.
Wedlock is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, one of Georgian society’s richest heiresses. It follows her life as she leaves a loveless first marriage and is then deceived into a second marriage by the Irish fortune hunter Andrew Robinson Stoney, who then subjects her to many years of heinous domestic abuse for the sake of her great fortune. Mary’s escape and hard-won divorce from the brutal rapist, adulterer and master of fraud was the scandal of the time, and even today beggars belief. The book is based on a true account written by Mary Bowes herself which details her years of suffering at the hands of Stoney and how she managed to escape from the marriage with her children at a time when husbands owned their wives completely by law and successful divorce initiated by a woman was unheard of.
Much of the action happens in the northern cities of Durham and Newcastle, which made the novel all the more compelling for me. What makes the biography even more fantastical is that Mary’s great-great-great-great granddaughter is now sitting on the throne of England. Mary’s story is an amazing tale of the struggle for women’s rights which shook Georgian Britain to its very foundations.
9. The Teardrop Story Woman by Catherine Lim
To be born female is curse enough. To be born female with an unlucky teardrop mole is surely a mark of the gods’ displeasure…”
From the story of one strong woman surviving in a repressive society to another. The cover of Catherine Lim’s The Teardrop Story Woman gave a tall order; featuring a quote from Company magazine, it claimed that, “If you loved Wild Swans you’ll adore this book.”
I don’t think that surmation is far wrong; although none could surpass this classic of the genre, The Teardrop Story Woman is a very emotionally-sound novel with intriuging and believable characters, set against a generously detailed backdrop of a small Malayan town in the 1950s; a time beset with the ever menacing threat of communist terrorists. Indeed, you can feel that fear almost pouring through the actions of the characters, both native Malayan and settling European.
The author doesn’t hold back from describing her subjects with an unflattering and utterly realistic tone. The ones she spends little time on, for instance the temple vagrant, are fascinating and with just a whiff of mysteriousness about them; the back stories of the background characters could have whole books devoted to them themselves. But it is in the wholehearted and brutally tender portrayal of Lim’s protagonists, the torn asunder Father François Martin and the wonderfully fearless Mei Kwei, that her talent as an author shows.
As a girl growing up in the small town of Luping, Mei Kwei’s life is governed by men; from her opium-soaked father and gambling brother to her rich suitor and the hard stares of men in the street. Beautiful and spirited, Mei Kwei runs from the arms of one man to another in the search of true love; but it is in the arms of the one she cannot love that she finds it; a French catholic priest sent to Luping as a missionary.
In the conservative surroundings of a 1950s Malayan village the pair are forced to hide their growing affection for each other, both from the eyes of scandal and the vengeful terrorists. But under the continuing pressures of Mei Kwei’s impending marriage and Father Martin’s vocation, the pair are forced to make a choice which brings the demands of the heart and flesh into direct collision with those of the unyielding spirit.
10. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
“Here in the highlands, when the long rains are over, and in the first week of June nights begin to be cold, we get the fireflies in the woods.
On an evening you will see two or three of them, adventurous lonely stars floating in the clear air, rising and lowering, as if upon waves, or as if curtseying. To that rhythm of their flight they lighten and put out their diminutive lamps. You may catch the insect and make it shine upon the palm of your hand, giving out a strange light, a mysterious message; it turns the flesh pale green in a small circle round it. The next night there are hundreds and hundreds in the woods.
For some reason they keep within a certain height, four or five feet, above the ground. It is impossible then not to imagine that a whole crowd of children of six or seven years are running through the dark forest carrying candles, little sticks dipped in a magic fire, joyously jumping up and down, and gambolling as they run, and swinging their pale torches merrily. The woods are filled with a wild frolicsome life, and it is all perfectly silent.”
I was first drawn to this book on a vague recollection that there had been a film made of it, which I haven’t seen. But for this I am glad, because though this book has many good features to recommend it, its wonderful descriptions of the African landscape are among the most beautifully poetic I have ever read. They appeal strongly to a good imagination. Through the description you can almost see the land the author lived on, and certainly feel the love and great longing she has for it.
There is a colonial aftertaste to Out of Africa which seems unpalatable to the modern reader. This is apparent in the aristocratic use of foreign language which can be lost on the non-speaker, but especially in the phrases which are occasionally used to describe the differences in culture between the native and the white settler. The language is noticeably archaic in places and betrays the times. However I would stop short at describing this book as racist by any means. Through the author’s eyes, the native peoples are given a stark beauty. Though the differences are most certainly there and observed with an old-fashioned eye, there is a nobility in Blixen’s prose which leads you past the stereotype. There is a mutual respect here which is irrespective of culture and is admittedly deeply fascinating to read.
Out of Africa, a true story, is without a doubt about the uniqueness of an old country that has long disappeared into the uniformity of the modern world. This is an Africa where a white woman lives on a farm very much like a queen; surrounded by the beautiful landscape which bewitches her and a small army of besotted native servants and neighbouring tribes with whom she forms a complicated but beautiful symbiosis.
This is an Africa where the Masai warrior is fenced off into a reserve but still remains dangerous and unpredictable, to be given the respect he is due. Where white and native, Muslim and Christian, young and ancient live alike, all moving with the touch of the seasons, hopes raised or dashed by the coming of the rains and lives begun and ended under the tyranny of nature.