The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

This is one of the most beautiful and original stories I have read for a long time. It’s now out in paperback in the UK, so if you are looking for a bank holiday book, I would recommend this one.
This is a story set in a future world, a water world, where much of the population lives on board boats, travelling between the remaining islands. The story focuses on a circus boat that performs nightly on different islands with clowns, dancing horses, acrobats and a girl, North, who dances with a bear. The other key character is a gracekeeper whose role is to bless and bury the dead in the underwater cemetery that is the graceyard. Her name is Callanish. 
Callanish sees the circus when she is a child and is haunted by the memory of the bear. She lives alone as a gracekeeper because she has webbed fingers and toes which she must keep secret from the other land dwellers. Living on the land is a privilege and the land dwellers look down on the damplings who live at sea. 

North too is keeping a secret and only reveals it to Callanish after a death in the circus causes them to visit the graceyard. They part, but fate weaves them together as Callanish leaves her graceyard to return to her home island and the disgraces of her past and North’s fate overwhelms her and her bear as they follow the circus boat in their coracle.

It is rare a story feels this fresh. Logan’s characterisation is as evocative as her descriptions of the strange sea world. Red Gold the circus master, with his eczema fired cheeks, is a complex showman, pushing daring boundaries with his performance whilst at the same time craving a quiet land based life for his son. The mysterious revivalists boats spreading a missionary religion around the world, with their sinister plots and concealed purpose, fill the ports with unspoken menace. Whilst the stories of the two girls interlace towards each other and the meeting of the tales.

This is a story that stays with you long after you have closed the covers, a real keeper.


May Book Club: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I confess I had some input into this months choice! There was a request for romance and strong women, with no religion, so I though a little Jane Austen would not go amiss. As the multiple copies suggest I have read it before but I think reading in a group can bring different ideas and perspectives and, after all, you never really read the same book twice.

Being the youngest sister in my family I always rather identified with Margaret, who is always in the background watching the romances of her sisters as they fall apart. I always wonder which sister Margaret modelled herself on, the emotional Marianne or the sensible Elinor. However, reading now as the mother of a teenager daughter I confess I was often infuriated with Mrs. Dashwood and her imprudent advice, her lack of sense! 

It is the relationship between Marianne and Elinor that, for me, has always been at the heart of this novel. For all their love for each other they are unable to communicate and really support each other as one then the other experiences a broken heart. Marianne’s passion for Willoughby seems inevitable, a handsome man carrying her home with a twisted ankle.  But her passion is essentially all about pleasure. Willoughby fascinates  her because they seem to share every interest in common, he sings, he dances, he hunts and he has one country estate with the promise of inheriting another. When he appears to be none of these things their relationship is revealed to be founded on nothing. Her behaviour then goes through all the distraught behaviour required, sincerely or for effect? Elinor’s frustration with her sister is palpable. This is only increased because the man she loves, Edward has apparently been engaged to Lucy Steele, a social climber, since his youth. Austen ensures Lucy is a grasping, unsavoury character who forces Edward to remain engaged to her even though she knows his affection is long spent. This portrayal has always felt a little unfair, did Lucy have any other options than marriage, with no fortune or education? Is she really to blame or is it Edward’s character that lacks decision? Elinor cannot speak to anyone about her love for Edward because it is her nature to conceal and control her emotions as much as it is Marianne’s to reveal everything. Sense versus sensibility when what is needed is a balance of both.

Ultimately, Marianne’s need to be a distraught lover leads to her catching a terrible cold and almost dying. She emerges from her near death bed a more reflective character.  Her eventual marriage to Colnel Brandon is at least based on a degree of friendship on her side and a devotion apparently based on her resemblance to a childhood sweetheart on his part. Brandon’s character lacks any real charisma in the novel to make him a heroic figure, though he is probably the most virtuous man in the story.  Elinor’s character does not really shift until Edward reappears and she is no longer able to control her emotions.

Everyone in the novel seems to get a contented ending, if not a happy one. (Except the poor girl who has Willoughby’s illegitimate child, who never gets an ending at all!) I was left wondering if this is really a novel with strong female characters as I remembered or more a well written sisterly relationship. I will see what the book club thinks!

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I couldn’t resist the clothbound Classic edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, then, of course, I had to read it. I haven’t read it for quite a few years and I had forgotten what a powerful story it contains. Anne Bronte’s story of Wildfell Hall seemed to me like a twin novel to Wuthering Heights. I wonder if the sisters chose the same initial letters deliberately? These questions about the lives of the Bronte sisters could easily take over so instead of becoming a book blog this becomes a fantasy biography! 

However, the structure of the both novels is also strikingly similar. Both novels involve a retelling of a story, read in a diary in the case of Wildfell Hall, told by Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights. Gilbert begins Wildfell Hall with his own description of life in the provincial town in an unspecified rural location. A widowed lady and her son take on the tenancy of the semi derelict Wildfell Hall from the local squire, and create a certain sense of local mystery. Gilbert describes how he gets to know the widow, the tenant of the title through befriending her son. Gilbert is a poor narrator, indulgent about his own feelings and failing to really analyse events, instead reacting to them as the hotheaded young man he is. I admit, when I first read this novel in my teens, I thought this was poorly written but reading it again I recognise it is a stylistic choice. Anne Bronte, as a realist, actually writes the vain and sometimes silly thoughts and actions a pampered young man may well make when thwarted in love. In the same way Lockwood is an unreliable narrator and poor analyst in Wuthering Heights. It invites the reader to question the account and to examine the characters more closely.

The ‘guts’ of this novel is the diary account of Helen, the tenant of Wildfell Hall, and what draws her to live a hidden life. Few writers in the twentieth century capture the descent of a loved one into alcoholism one can only imagine how it shocked a Victorian audience. Bronte leads the reader through each stage, Helen’s passion and her belief she can reform Arthur through her own goodness. She recognises the folly of her arrogance only too soon and realises her charms hold nothing for him compared with wine. His alcoholism brutalises her. He casually offers her to other men for their pleasure, gives their young son wine and teaches him to abuse his mother, denies her friends, access to the keys of the house and even her painting materials as the story goes on. There is nothing redemptive in his character and he and his associates are often compared to demons. Helen’s dramatic escape to Wildfell Hall does not end his control. Gilbert is not a romantic hero. He is powerless to save her. 

This is a startlingly feminist novel. Helen, a rich young woman, must surrender all her property to Arthur who wastes it in his dissipation. What constitutes a marriage is frequently asked and at what point does a partner’s behaviour mean that walking away is the only choice. These may not have been questions the Victorians wanted to read but they are so pertinent now. Anne Bronte is a writer worth revisiting. She is overlooked in the light of her sisters, yet both her novels are like the realistic reflections of the life of a governess and life with a brutal alcoholic.