Saturday, November 29, 2014

It's Unanimous! Our next pick: The Vet's Daughter

The voting is finished, and the choice is in: we'll be reading Barbara Comyns's novel The Vet's Daughter as our next pick. The discussion will begin on January 15th. Everyone is welcome to join in!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

At long last, time for another book!

Rohan got the ball rolling on choosing another book, and I volunteered to come up with a list for us to vote on, so here goes! But first, an explanation: this group is open to absolutely anybody who wants to participate. You don't need to do anything to join us except to read the book and participate in the discussion in whatever way you want to. That could include something as simple as reading along and commenting on the posts here, or perhaps publishing a post on your own blog, or possibly publishing a post on this site. Leave a comment here if you'd like to publish a post on this blog, and we'll figure out how to get that done.

For this round, I thought about what books I'd like to discuss with you all the most, and for some reason books from the 1950s were coming to mind. So, here's a list of titles I think we might enjoy. Let's vote by next Wednesday, November 26th. Perhaps we could discuss the book on or around January 15th? I thought that date was far enough away to give us plenty of time to read and also enough after the holidays that they won't interfere. If anyone thinks another date would be better, though, just let me know.

So, vote for your choice in the comments!

  • Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957): "Tempering memory with invention, McCarthy describes how, orphaned at six, she spent much of her childhood shuttled between two sets of grandparents and three religions—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. One of four children, she suffered abuse at the hands of her great-aunt and uncle until she moved to Seattle to be raised by her maternal grandparents. Early on, McCarthy lets the reader in on her secret: The chapter you just read may not be wholly reliable—facts have been distilled through the hazy lens of time and distance."
  •  Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter (1959): "The Vet's Daughter combines shocking realism with a visionary edge. The vet lives with his bedridden wife and shy daughter Alice in a sinister London suburb. He works constantly, captive to a strange private fury, and treats his family with brutality and contempt. After his wife's death, the vet takes up with a crass, needling woman who tries to refashion Alice in her own image. And yet as Alice retreats ever deeper into a dream world, she discovers an extraordinary secret power of her own."
  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953): "First published in 1953 when James Baldwin was nearly 30, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a young man's novel, as tightly coiled as a new spring, yet tempered by a maturing man's confidence and empathy. It's not a long book, and its action spans but a single day--yet the author packs in enough emotion, detail, and intimate revelation to make his story feel like a mid-20th-century epic. Using as a frame the spiritual and moral awakening of 14-year-old John Grimes during a Saturday night service in a Harlem storefront church, Baldwin lays bare the secrets of a tormented black family during the depression."
  • Yukio Mishima, Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956): "Because of the boyhood trauma of seeing his mother make love to another man in the presence of his dying father, Mizoguchi becomes a hopeless stutterer. Taunted by his schoolmates, he feels utterly alone until he becomes an acolyte at a famous temple in Kyoto. He quickly becomes obsessed with the beauty of the temple. Even when tempted by a friend into exploring the geisha district, he cannot escape its image. In the novel's soaring climax, he tries desperately to free himself from his fixation."
  • Ira Levin, A Kiss Before Dying (1953): "A Kiss Before Dying not only debuted the talent of best-selling novelist Ira Levin to rave reviews and an Edgar Award, it also set a new standard in the art of psychological suspense. It tells the shocking tale of a young man who will stop at nothing—not even murder—to get where he wants to go. For he has dreams, plans. He also has charm, good looks, intelligence. And he has a problem. Her name is Dorothy; she loves him, and she’s pregnant. The solution may demand desperate measures. But, then, he looks like the kind of guy who could get away with murder."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hello? Is Anybody Out There?

What happened? One minute we were all enthusiastically discussing Jamaica Inn, and the next minute it was complete radio silence! It hardly seems possible, but almost a year has gone by since our last read.

I don't think any one of us made a conscious decision to let this group lapse. Probably we were all just caught up in other things and other conversations. But tonight I was thinking that, much as I enjoy following the diverse book discussions we're all still having on our own sites or on Twitter, I rather miss meeting up here once in a while to talk all together about a book we have in common.

I put out a tweet to that effect and Rebecca said she felt the same way, so we started wondering how the rest of the group feels. A quick post here seemed like the best way to find out. Is there interest in picking up again? If people had lost interest, or it had stopped being fun, are there factors we could address and improve on -- book choices, pacing, anything else? Or do people already feel pulled in too many directions, so that this group has become that one thing too many? Energy ebbs and flows for this kind of thing, and that's only natural. It just seemed worth checking whether we were done or just paused.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jamaica Inn: A Guest Post

[I'm happy to share these thoughts from Dorian Stuber, a regular reader who wanted to join in our discussion of Jamaica Inn. I'm sure he'd welcome comments. -- Rohan]

I’ve never posted here before, but feel obligated since I voted for Jamaica Inn and the margin of victory was so narrow. I’ve enjoyed reading these posts; they’ve helped me pinpoint some of the things I like about the novel.

I like Teresa’s idea that the novel revises our ideas about the heroines of the Gothic literature from the period in which it is set. Certainly, I enjoyed the text’s deployment of elements I’m familiar with from certain 19th century texts (the Brontes, Hardy), if not from Romance literature, of which I have no real knowledge. As someone interested in 20th-century British literature, I spent some time trying to figure out how to place Du Maurier amongst other literature from her own time. Is there anything modernist about this work, for example? Would it be useful to think of it as a Modernist take on the Gothic?

In the end, I think Jamaica Inn is too solidly aligned to the conventions of its genre (and I don’t say that as a criticism!) for that to be the case. But the ending is quite intriguingly open. In my edition (the Virago), at least, the penultimate page ends with Jem asking, “'Do you love me, Mary?’” To which she responds, rather ambiguously, “'I believe so, Jem.” I thought the book ended here, and was immediately reminded of the famously irresolute ending of Lawrence’s Women in Love (or The Fox or indeed any number of other Modernist works). But then I realized there were another few lines to go on the real last page, and the ending became a little less irresolute.  But I think the gender ambiguities that the text repeatedly offers us remain even with the ending we do get. Besides, Mary’s professed dream of farming by herself didn’t seem to me in any way conventionally gendered.

And yet it was just this professed dream of Mary’s that most puzzled me about the book. The thing that didn’t quite work for me was the disjunction between Mary’s repeatedly expressed longing for her lost home in Helston and the reality of the place as presented by the text. Helston may be more temperate than the moors, but it’s hardly gentle: think about the sickness that kills the county’s livestock, which Du Maurier describes so resonantly, at such length: “It was a sickness that came over everything and destroyed, much as a late frost will out of season, coming with the new moon and then departing, leaving no trace of its passage save the little trail of dead things in its path.” (This could be a description of the novel, except that sharp “little” couldn’t be said to apply to the things that happen at and around the inn.) The death of the livestock prefigures the death of Mary’s mother, which is itself presaged by the “eager” pleasure Mary’s neighbour takes in explaining to Mary and the doctor that the patient’s condition has worsened. The man who buys the farm after the mother’s death (admittedly a stranger from a nearby town) makes plans to change all the things he doesn’t like about the place; Mary, “an interloper in her own home,” can only watch “in dumb loathing.”  

I’m unconvinced, in other words, that Helston is quite so wonderful. And yet I also didn’t get the sense that the text was criticizing or making even gentle fun at Mary here. Mostly, the text presents Helston and Mary’s life before coming to the inn as a real lost paradise rather than, like all paradises, as one already lost. (And necessarily so, if there is to be a novel, that is, if Mary is to be catapulted into the events of the plot.) I rather hoped that the novel would more overtly suggest its, at least, if not its protagonist’s, awareness of the difference between memory and reality. One effect of that awareness would have been to give us a Mary who is naïve, blinded or misguided, at least in this regard, but I think that would only have made her more interesting, not less. Still, if the novel doesn’t overtly tell us that Helston is no more a place for Mary than Jamaica Inn, it is explicit that the era of the wreckers is fast coming to an end, with the advent of lighthouses, beacons, and the like. In that regard, there is a striking belief in progress, even modernity at the heart of this Gothic text.

-- Dorian Stuber

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Jamaica Inn

It was a dark and rainy day when I settled down to read Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, perfect weather for this romantic thriller about an orphan, a drunken innkeeper, a horse thief, and an attentive albino vicar.

When her mother died, the orphan, a young woman named Mary Yellan, moved north to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt Patience. Before even arriving at the lonesome inn on the moors, Mary began to hear rumors about the inn’s evil reputation. It turns out that Mary’s uncle, Joss Merlyn, is both a drunk and a criminal. At first, Mary assumes that his only crime is smuggling, but soon she learns of the murderous nature of his crimes and wonders how she might convince her aunt to escape with her. Can the vicar she keeps meeting on the moors help her? And what about Joss’s brother, Jem, a confessed horse thief? What is Mary to do about her growing attraction to him? Is he more involved in Joss’s activities than he will admit?

This book is a great example of how a book can be entirely predictable, yet extremely suspenseful. It’s a pretty neat trick. So how does she manage it? The predictability of the book lies in its employment of a lot of tropes we’ve all become used to seeing in literature and film, some perhaps influenced by du Maurier. Jem the horse thief, for example, is presented as a rogue with a heart of gold, ready to give Mary gifts and attention but never forcing himself. It’s clear to the experienced reader that he’s a romantic lead long before Mary realizes it. But du Maurier holds back just enough information to keep readers in doubt as to the real nature of his relationship with his brother. He may be a romantic lead, but is he a good man? And how good must one be to be considered good, anyway? And how evil to be considered evil? Mary ponders this question when she learns of Joss’s smuggling:
Smuggling was dangerous; it was fraught with dishonesty; it was forbidden strictly by the law of the land; but was it evil? Mary could not decide.
This question underpins many of Mary’s decision-making processes. When is a dishonest action evil? Just about every character in this book is morally compromised in some way, but at what point do they cross the line?

When Joss eventually crosses the line for Mary, her way becomes clear:
Mary did not consider her uncle any more. She had lost her fear of him. There was only loathing left in heart, loathing and disgust. He had lost all hold on humanity. He was a beast that walked by night. Now that she had seen him drunk, and she knew him for what he was, he could not frighten her. Neither he nor the rest of his company. They were things of evil, rotting the countryside, and she would never rest until they were trodden underfoot, and cleared, and blotted out. Sentiment would not save them again.
Evil turns a human into something other than itself, into a thing that can and must be fought. And Mary, as a good person, has the strength of will to fight.

Mary herself is a sort of commentary on the prototypical Gothic heroine. du Maurier sets her novel in the early 1800s, the time of Ann Radcliffe and her many fainting heroines. Mary faints once, early in the book, and she despises herself for it. For the rest of the book, she’s the type to swear to give herself courage, jump off a porch roof, walk for miles in the cold, and offer to confront a dangerous man at gun point. She is fearless, we are told, and much like a boy.

This point, that Mary in all her boldness, is being boyish for standing up her herself fascinates me, though I disagree with it on principle. Mary is, in most respects, the kind of heroine many woman want to see in novels. She’s plucky and fierce and smart, and she claims to prefer farming to romance. She’s certain that, given the chance, she’d be able to run her own farm. But she’s sometimes doubtful of her own strength, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. When she kisses the rakish Jem, she’s not sorry to have done it, but she’s determined to be the master of her emotions and not let her heart drive her into dangerous ground. At one point, this dilemma about Jem is treated as a battle between her boyishness and her girlishness. What a woman would do, and what a man would do is a minor obsession of the narrative. But I think du Maurier is being slyly subversive here because, in the end, Mary makes the choice of both a man and a woman. She refuses, right up to the end, to be tied down by these categories.

Jamaica Inn reads like a good old-fashioned potboiler, but there’s a lot going on inside, once you scratch the surface. This is the fourth book by du Maurier that I’ve read, and with each book that I read, I love her more.

Cross-posted to Shelf Love

Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

"Defying Man and Storm": Jamaica Inn

I’m no connoisseur of romantic suspense, but it’s hard to imagine it being done better than Jamaica Inn. Really, this book has it all: a grim, windswept, yet beautiful landscape; a grim, brooding, yet charismatic villain; a grim, twisted, yet convincing plot; Jamaica Inn itself, “a house that reeked of evil . . . a solitary landmark defying man and storm”; and, in Mary Yellan, a heroine bold and determined enough to survive them all. There’s also a deceptively colorless vicar, a dubiously trustworthy horse thief, and a whole supporting cast of rogues; there’s treachery, murder, and, of course, true love. If it sounds like the stuff of clichés, it is — and yet, amazingly, it really isn’t, because du Maurier is just that good.
The most terrifying part of the novel, for instance, is not a scene of rapidly unfolding action or immanent violence (though there are such scenes, and they are plenty suspenseful). Instead, it’s a story told over the kitchen table. “Did you never hear of wreckers before?” is the speaker’s chilling question, and the pictures his words paint haunt us as they will Mary, his unwilling audience:
‘When I’m drunk I see them in my dreams; I see their white-green faces staring at me, with their eyes eaten by fish; and some of them are torn, with the flesh hanging on their bones in ribbons, and some of them have seaweed in their hair. . . . Have you ever seen flies caught in a jar of treacle? I’ve seen men like that; stuck in the rigging like a swarm of flies. . . . Just like flies they are, spread out on the yards, little black dots of men. I’ve seen the ship break up beneath them, and the masts and the yards snap like thread, and there they’ll be flung into the sea, to swim for their lives. But when they reach the shore they’re dead men, Mary.’
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and stared at her. ‘Dead men tell no tales, Mary,’ he said.
Mary can only hope that when she reaches the safety of her own bed, she can hide from what he has told her in the stark cold of the kitchen:
Here she could see the pale faces of drowned men, their arms above their heads; she could hear the scream of terror, and the cries; she could hear the mournful clamour of the bell-buoy as it swayed backwards and forwards in the sea.
It’s not just crime Mary comes face to face with that night, but evil. It’s embodied in Joss Merlyn, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, who is Mary’s uncle through his marriage to her Aunt Patience. Patience was a bright, happy young woman when she married Joss, but she is now a “poor, broken thing,” cowering and apologetic and fearful, but loyal, too, and loving, in her pathetic way. Joss is a wonderfully terrible figure of a man: huge, almost monstrous, but capable of an unexpected delicate grace that Mary finds more sinister than his overt cruelty. In her introduction, Sarah Dunant calls him “a Mr. Rochester without a Jane to redeem him,” which fits well enough, except that for all his faults, Mr. Rochester was never as bad as this! Patience must have married him “for his bright eyes,” Mary mockingly speculates, and it turns out that the power of sexual attraction to lure people off course is one of the novel’s central interests. Mary herself feels its pull (and understands Patience’s bad choice better) when she meets his younger brother Jem, who (to Mary’s dismay) almost charms away her suspicions:
He was too like his brother. His eyes, and his mouth, and his smile. That was the danger of it. She could see her uncle in his walk, in the turn of his head; and she knew why Aunt Patience had made a fool of herself ten years ago. It would be easy enough to fall in love with Jem Merlyn.
But Mary’s not looking for love. A farm girl, “bred to the soil,” she has no romantic ideas. At the same time, she understands the demands of the flesh:
Jem Merlyn was a man, and she was a woman, and whether it was his hands or his skin or his smile she did not know, but something inside her responded to him, and the very thought of him was an irritant and a stimulant at the same time. It nagged at her and would not let her be. She knew she would have to see him again.
I was fascinated by Mary’s frankness about her own desires: “Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.” Her aunt’s abjection should be cautionary tale enough, you’d think, but even as Jem jokes “Beware of the dark stranger,” they kiss in the shadows.
Mary worries about giving “too much away,” about losing her independence and finding that her weakness for him makes “the four walls of Jamaica Inn more hateful than they were already.” The mixture of heady excitement and mistrust she feels for Jem adds, also, to the mysteries of the novel: how far is he involved in the murky activities of his brother? how much does he know about what happens at Jamaica Inn under cover of darkness? why does he ask Mary so many questions? Will her love for him save or destroy her? Du Maurier keeps her, and us, guessing as Mary struggles to figure out the answers and find her own way through the moral and physical dangers of her situation.
There are both predictable and implausible elements of the plot, but I forgave them both because they come with the territory and because du Maurier writes so well. When I wrote about Frenchman’s Creek I described her prose as “purple” (“royal purple, richest velvet,” to be precise). I expected more of the same here, despite having recently read The Scapegoat — which surprised me by being restrained and shadowy, not purple at all. I’m now adding du Maurier to my list of writers who impress by their versatility: she can clearly “do” the novel in different voices to suit her purposes. Jamaica Inn could easily have been full of cheap thrills, but for all its melodrama it never struck me as silly (whereas I called Frenchman’s Creek “ridiculous” — mind you, that was in 2010, so I may have been reading / judging differently). It’s not really a novel of character, and Joss especially borders on caricature, but (partly through Jem) he is humanized enough to be monstrous, but not a monster. I’m not so sure about the other chief villain, but at any rate he’s not a stock figure but has his own unique style of nastiness. For me, though, it was the scenery that made the novel truly memorable. The descriptions are vividly sensual without being florid, as here:
The drive was silent  then, for the most part, with no other sound but the steady clopping of the horse’s hoofs upon the road, and now and again an own hooted from the still trees. The rustle of hedgerow and the creeping country whispers were left behind when the trap came out upon the Bodmin road, and once again the dark moor stretched out on either side, lapping the road like a desert. The ribbon of the highway shone white under the moon. It wound and was lost in the fold of the further hill, bare and untrodden. There were no travellers but themselves upon the road tonight. On Christmas Eve, when Mary had ridden here, the wind had lashed venomously at the carriage wheels, and the rain hammered the windows: now the air was still cold and strangely still, and the moor itself lay placid and silver in the moonlight. The dark tors held their sleeping face to the sky, the granite features softened and smoothed by the light that bathed them. Theirs was a peaceful mood, and the old gods slept undisturbed.
As you can tell, I enjoyed the novel thoroughly. I'm eager to see what the rest of you have to say about it!

(cross-posted to Novel Readings)