The books we read in 2015 have provoked some wonderful and varied reviews.
December 2015: Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence
Set in 1900s, this is a lushly descriptive and highly autobiographical portrayal of a young man growing up in class-divided Nottingham…
From the Colyford Tuesday Group
The book was read and enjoyed – overall voting was 7 out of 10.
We all agreed that the level of characterisation and the quality of the descriptive writing was captivating. The reader was drawn inside the head of Gertrude and Paul Morel in particular (Mother and son). Mrs Morel was a controlling and manipulative mother who would never have been satisfied with any wife for her son/s. She did this with direct speech and in more subtle ways, leaving the reader urging Paul to break free and lead his own life. But of course this was not going to happen in this book!
Gertrude Morel had no love for her husband and substitutes her sons for her lover. Her daughter gets little mention in the book. It is all about her love for her sons and the book contains symbolism in places e.g. mother’s milk. It develops as the classic Oedipus story.
One question we all had was why did an educated lady marry a miner?
Paul’s treatment of Miriam, his first girlfriend was mentally abusive and sometimes physically threatening. Whenever he felt himself being attracted to her, he felt hatred towards her, preventing her from getting too close by saying nasty things.
His attitude to Clara was different in the beginning but he never really believed he could be with her (even if she had not been married) and again he pushed her away back to her husband. Paul was very manipulative and cold at times, always being made to feel guilty towards his mother.
Paul had some very close relationships with several men, Edgar (Miriam’s brother) and Dawes (Clara’s husband) and if this book had been written later, it is possible that the novel could have contained some gay scenes? Although it seemed that sex outside marriage in 1913 did seem the norm!
Miriam had a lucky escape from Gertrude who would have been the mother in law from hell!
The book portrayed England as it was in that period, walking 10 miles was nothing and going to the theatre a very special event.
In the end Paul feels so trapped by his mother’s love and his own love for his mother that he hated seeing her suffer so he takes extreme action and gives her an overdose, however she still takes her time to die…..
From the Colyton Thursday Group
Of the six members who attended the meeting, or submitted reviews, all agreed it was a long slow read. “Grim”, “dull” and “depressing” were some of the adjectives used to describe the novel overall.
The novel highlighted the struggle of those within the working classes to rise up out of the rut through education, the arts and better jobs but primarily Sons and Lovers was a tome that focused on relationships. The main relationships being between Gertrude Morel, her son Paul and his lovers Miriam and Clara. We thought that most relationships and characters were very odd and that Clara was probably the most “normal” and believable character in the novel. Many felt that Paul was cold, heartless and unnecessarily cruel towards Miriam.
The group appreciated Lawrence’s skill as a writer and commented that it was well-written and was perhaps unfair to compare Sons and Lovers to contemporary fiction we have been reading, where the plot moves along quickly and there is far more action and less descriptive narrative. At the time of publishing, Sons and Lovers was considered extremely “racy”, but within the group no-one was shocked by the sex scenes or the violence of Walter Morel and Baxter Dawes. We commented on how this highlighted the content of what we read and see on film has changed over the last century. One member said she felt very uncomfortable about the incestuous undercurrent alluded to between Mrs Morel and Paul.
Most members agreed that the repetition of events, the detailed descriptions of both the surrounding countryside and the harsh reality of everyday events were a distraction from the storyline. Some members felt the inclusion of the colloquial language, especially of Walter Morel, was a further distraction and made the novel slower and harder to read. We agreed that it painted a detailed picture of the hardship of working class life in a small northern mining village 100 years ago.
We discussed the ending of the book and felt it was quite ambiguous, where Paul walks towards the “gold phosphorescence” of the city and turns away from the “darkness” and we thought this suggested that Paul had considered suicide after the death of his mother. Some felt the suicidal thoughts may have been brought on by the guilt of his “murder” or mercy killing of his mother.
We agreed that Sons and Lovers would work well as a film as it would allow you to concentrate on the characters and not be distracted by the long descriptive passages of the countryside and the journeys to and from destinations. We also agreed that perhaps this was not a novel to tackle in short bursts as a read at bedtime but deserved longer periods of concentration and contemplation to fully appreciate it.
Despite the negative comments the overall mark for the novel was 6.
From the Honiton Group
We all enjoyed the book as far as we had read it and were very glad ourselves to not have had such a tough existence.
S had researched a little about Lawrence which explored a little more his unconventional life and fairly stormy second marriage all of which are mirrored by the characters in the story.
It also illustrated how Mrs Morel whilst wishing to save her family from the life she was leading actually contributed to their unhappiness and it raised the question had she left the children more to follow their own desires, would their lives have been different?
One of the scenes which illustrated so clearly the class divide is when Paul and his mother are in a restaurant after his first job interview having to choose the cheapest option on the menu, this is picked up by the waitress who then chooses to ignore them to the point of insolence.
From a historical point of view it has been very informative and to learn about life in those times. Overall Sons & Lovers is quite intense and deep. There is a sadness in the way that Paul Morel is so much controlled by his mother – a bit like an insect caught in a spider’s web – the reader fears throughout that he is never going to break free and be his own person. There is a message there about parenting and how not to do it! I realise, however, that the book is partly autobiographical so that D H Lawrence is telling his own story – which makes it perhaps more poignant.
In reading the story we felt you became part of it you could feel the dirt, grime and poverty, which is Lawrences’ talent as an author.
We would definitely recommend the book.
From the Exeter Group
We all enjoyed this classic, some of us reading it for the first time, some of us returning to it from our teens and twenties.
Although set in a time and place where the social and moral conventions were so different from today, we felt that the essential themes of Sons and Lovers were as relevant now as when it was written. The central relationship between Paul and Mrs Morel, and her responses to Miriam and Clara, led to a discussion of our own experiences – how did our parents react when we brought boyfriends and girlfriends home? How do we as parents now respond to our teenage children’s choices? Do mothers feels differently about their sons than they do about their daughters?
Paul’s relationship with his mother was so well portrayed, with empathy and understanding of her perspective, her frustrations and disappointments. We felt however that Lawrence showed less understanding in his portrayals of Miriam and Clara. The novel is highly autobiographical – in writing Miriam and Clara in this way perhaps Lawrence was providing a justification for his rejection of the real “Miriam” and “Clara” in his own life.
We had mixed feelings about the character of Paul. There was some frustration at his inability to make his mind up! However we admired his courage in pursuing his painting, and his appreciation of the natural world. Paul’s relationship with Baxter was interesting – why in the end did he befriend him? Was it guilt, or as a way of disentangling himself from Clara? We noticed how Morel’s stature diminishes as the novel progresses and some of us felt some sympathy for him by the end. We talked about Lawrence’s knowledgable and realistic portrayal of daily life in the mining communities of the time: the poverty, the sheer physical grind of their work, the lack of unions and political power, the strong communal ties and the mutual support the men and women gave each other to get through the hard times.
October 2015: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Fifty-five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird comes its sequel. Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father Atticus. She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand both her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.
From the Colyford Tuesdays Group
Ten members of our group have contributed to this review.
All had read To Kill A Mockingbird prior to reading Go Set A Watchman either years ago, or were prompted to read it before reading Go Set A Watchman, believing it was a sequel to TKAMB. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed TKAMB and, sadly, felt let down by Go Set A Watchman which was considered to be just a series of notes that didn’t really make any sense.
Apart from a small number of funny moments like believing you could be pregnant after kissing a boy, the ‘bra bit’ and the bit about the ‘holy spirit’, the book was deemed to be ‘disappointing’ and comments were made about the publishers misleading readers by advertising it as a sequel when it clearly is not.Recent research into the book has showed that Go Set A Watchman could have been the original submission from Harper Lee, which was subsequently changed, as the publishers didn’t feel that it was good enough in its original format. The publishers described the original submission as a collection of anecdotes and not a novel that was marketable. One comment made within the group was that Harper Lee may not have received such rave reviews had GSAW been published as it was first written.
Our average rating: 3/10 (ratings ranged from 1 to 7).
From the Exeter Group
A rather select group met at The Double Locks to discuss Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Harper Lee wrote this before To Kill A Mockingbird but it is set at a later time when Scout is living in New York and her brother, Jem, is dead. As far as we know Harper Lee never meant to publish Go Set A Watchman.
What was good about this book? Well, we felt the book was well written with interesting descriptions of small town American Southern life. The tension between Blacks and Whites was palpable and exemplified by Scout’s visit to Calpurnia, her previous black housekeeper and mother figure in her life. In fact the descriptions of events in her past were perhaps the most enjoyable and not surprisingly most reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird.
We liked Scout’s idealism, her colour blindness, her feminism and her struggle with the disparate and polar views around her. In fact this was the crux of the book, the realization that Atticus, her lawyer father whom she has looked up to and admired for his sense of justice since early childhood, actually had views that were not as idealistic as hers. Ironically she saw things in black and white whereas Atticus’ views were rather greyer! However, we felt the book rather plodded along with her uncle’s absurd ramblings and really very little actual plot.
So this book scored a paltry 5/10.
In summary, a first draft, a work in progress, “could do better” on the school report and unsurprisingly not published before now.
From the Exmouth Group
We discussed the name of the book and its relationship to the Bible and the idea of developing conscience independent of your parents. That it is a coming of age novel at a time of society evolving in its views on race.
One member found it enjoyable until the last 3rd, when Scout is returning for a holiday and she is considering marriage. It seemed like more of an intellectual exercise and you stopped caring for the characters.
The discussions between Atticus and Scout evaluating black people were found to be very difficult to read with modern sensibilities.
The feeling was really that the novel and use of language has not stood the test of time, but that it didn’t affect how we view To Kill A Mockingbird.
From the Honiton Group
Mixed reactions from the group. Half read it without having read To Kill a Mockingbird.
We all felt it was disjointed and didn’t work as an independent book. It needed perseverance to finish it. Those who had read To Kill a Mockingbird were interested to read what had happened to the characters in the following 20yrs.
We felt the interaction with Scout and Dr Finch was implausible and couldn’t see her changing her opinion that easily towards Atticus. Also the bombshell of him being in love with Scout’s mother was never alluded to in either novel.
We also felt that Scout’s visit to see Calpurnia was implausible as she hadn’t been there before.
We didn’t give it a rating but from the opinions voiced I should say 5/10 would be fair.
From the Colyford Thursdays Group
Some of the group read Watchman AND Mocking Bird, and were in agreement that Watchman was not a ‘patch’ on the former. I personally felt (and some others agreed) that it was pointless and more a series of ramblings, writing about life in the time rather than the ‘plot’. The ending was as one member put it ‘a lot of psychological waffle’! One wonders if the idea to publish the draft was a pure money making exercise.
However, others found the book enjoyable, and that despite its failings, the characters still came through, and as a reflection on changes in that society it was good. It was felt that as an adult, Scout was intolerant and as a privileged white girl we wondered what job she did in New York; did she mix with negroes there?
Please read below the thoughts of one of our members who couldn’t make it to the discussion. I think she sums it up succinctly:
“Having read both of them I find it hard to view one of them separately from the other & so make my comments on them together. I initially struggled with Mocking Bird as some of the language was unknown to me and it felt very dated. However as I got into it I became really interested in and empathized with the characters – especially Scout & Atticus. Parts made me laugh. I enjoyed the trial scenes. The outcome of this being shockingly corrupt but, I guess, typical in the context of such a racist society with so many people with an entrenched attitude and an interest in preserving the status quo. It was interesting that Atticus saw the fact that the jury took a while to come to their decision as a sure step in the right direction. I also very much enjoyed the story of Boo Radley and found his role at the end of the story an interesting twist. There were clear messages here but they were presented with subtlety. I understood why it is held out as a modern classic.
“I think it was correct to see Watchman as a draft to the first book. In some places I was reading whole passages word for word as they appeared in Mocking Bird. The storytelling that was so precise and clear in the first book was more rambling here though & instead of narrative there were too many pages of Scout bemoaning what she saw as racism and how she had been let down. This stopped it from being such a compelling read. The subtlety was lost – in the mention of the trial in Watchman it records that the accused had been cleared. By the time Harper Lee finalized her draft into Mockingbird it seemed to me that she had realized that this was fantasy & in that society at that time there was only one possible outcome to the trial.
“I am not sure whether Atticus really was racist as Scout assumed. I think that he just knew that true equality would be achieved in small steps so perhaps he was hesitant to immediately give equal rights/responsibilities in everything until such time as the black people had been educated sufficiently to use those rights & responsibilities in the best way. Probably this would bring him into contact with racists but is it intrinsically racist, I’m not sure.”
We scored the book 6/10
July 2015: The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge who presides over cases in the family division. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude, and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow and domestic strife. There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now her marriage of thirty years is in crisis.At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: Adam, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely expressed faith? In the course of reaching a decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital—an encounter that stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgement has momentous consequences for them both.
From the West Hill Group
We chose this book as two of our members had already read it and recommended it as thought provoking and interesting and felt it would be a good contender for group discussions.
All members of our group enjoyed the book and found it struck a good balance between explaining the intricacies of the legal processes and injecting emotion into the characters and cases that the judge deals with. The moral dilemmas depicted and described throughout the book held interest.
We felt that Ian McEwan had managed to depict the home/work lives of the main character sympathetically and the story was well portrayed.
From Exmouth Book Group
We really loved the book. There was a feeling that Ian McEwan had captured the feelings and attitude and interpretation of the protagonist very well.
We discussed the timescale and how there was the impression of it being very compact, although it takes place over several weeks.
We discussed the kiss. Some members felt that it was very out of character. Others felt that she had a moment of madness resulting from the breakdown of her relationship. There was evidence of her physical attraction to him.
We discussed whether he would have killed himself anyway. We discussed whether he wanted to be her son, or was using the adoption idea as a way of gaining intimacy with her, of being close to her.
Did she have a responsibility to him? Some members felt that she did.
We discussed how he had an upbringing as a zealot, and so was going to fixate on something else as a result of this. This would fit in with him killing himself as an extreme reaction to her ‘betrayal’.
We discussed the continuation of her relationship with her husband, and how realistic it was as being seated in a feeling of disappointment at missing her takeaway on the sofa.
From Colyton (Thursdays) Book Group
Wow – our conversation plunged straight into a discussion conversation/debate on ‘the kiss’ between Fiona and Adam. Did it ring true in the story’s context, was it really significant? Our conversation was wide ranging but were we reading too much into Fiona’s actions or lack of it?
It seemed evident from this that the subject, issues and characters of this book had fascinated and absorbed our interest rather than the writing or form of the book. We did however recognise McEwan’s skill as a writer – especially ‘his short punchy sentences’. It is a comparatively short book but it did more than enough to absorb our interest and was not ‘overwritten’ like many novels today. On a negative note it was compared unfavourably with other McEwan novels like Chesil Beach or Atonement.
A copy of the book purchased in Waterstones gave more details of how Ian McEwan came to write this book – apparently it was after a dinner party with a number of judges and how McEwan used real cases in the story. This information fuelled our discussion especially about the difficult role of judges and in this case of Fiona the effect of her difficult marital background. Did we have sympathy for her or not- another debate! Our knowledge of the Jehovah’s Witness beliefs was shared and without criticism we contemplated how they coped in the context of everyday life.
When it came to our vote the book averaged a score of 7.65 out of 10 – which is a very reasonable score but most of all it was one of those books that had provoked thought and debate even if we did not fully appreciate the musical references or their relevance!
From Colyton (Tuesdays) Book Group
General consensus of the group was that the book was fairly readable but lacked a good ending. Most liked the book up until the last chapter, when you were left with a feeling of disappointment in the way the book ended. It was almost as if the author had got as far as he could, and just didn’t know what to do with the end.
Some of the story line was felt to be somewhat unrealistic, e.g. visit to the youth in hospital and the “kiss” and the blanking thereafter (though somewhat understandable given her role as a judge).
However there were other aspects of the story which balanced out the more unrealistic areas e.g. the relationship between the judge and her husband, the affair or non affair and then the gradual re-establishment of their relationship over a long period of time. In addition the details of the workings of the various cases was very good and helped maintain the reader’s interest. Plus the inner workings and beliefs of the Jehovah Witnesses was an interesting aspect, especially with respect to the parents’ total commitment with the religion’s ideals to the point that they would have prevented their son from having a much needed transfusion, but at the same time were hoping for the judge to overrule this decision, so that their son could receive treatment but at the same time not be ostracised from the religious group.
Overall, the group enjoyed the book but felt that the ending could have been better. The group scored the book 6.5 / 10.
From Exeter Book Group
Everyone present had enjoyed the book. They were interested by the subject matter. They felt that it was, typically for McEwan, well researched and highly detailed – perhaps superfluously so at times.
Some felt that McEwan’s attitude to the hero was initially sycophantic, painting her as superhuman, and that it was implausible. Others felt that her interest in music was a necessary construct to facilitate the connection with the boy, and indeed that it was plausible that over-achievers really do excel in many fields. We also discussed other aspects of the careful construction of a plausible and (at least initially) sympathetic lead character. For example, we felt it would have been impossible for the judge to be a man – imagine how the visits to the bedside of a teenage girl and the kiss would have looked then.
Most of us felt the husband was a sad character. Some thought he may have felt emasculated by her more prestigious career.
There was universal condemnation of the kiss, but also a feeling again that this seemed impossibly unlikely.
We felt there were echoes of the obsession explored in McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’.
We talked also about whether it was likely that the judge would have ignored the letters from the boy. Many of us felt that she would have considered herself to have a duty of care to the boy, and that she would have contacted the social worker about this at an earlier stage. We discussed whether the concept of a duty of care was something that was familiar within the legal profession, and thought that at least in branches such as the family courts it probably was.
The overall rating was 7.
From the Honiton Book Group
J’s thoughts were:
~ very readable kept the pages turning
~interesting subject matter, perhaps my take on it would be different to other people as I know a lot about this subject anyway, so I didn’t encounter any new thoughts, I would love to know how other people responded , I think medical ethics is a fascinating subject
~ cast her in a ‘God’ like figure which was interesting – what a responsibility . No wonder he became fascinated by her
~ what a great twist at the end
~ liked her character build up – you could just see how they ended up in a childless position, how life creeps up on you. But what a fab place they lived, interesting life they had – you can’t have everything
C’s thoughts were:
I’ve never read any McEwan books before but did see a talk about this book at Cheltenham Lit Fest with Ian and the judge ‘Fiona’ who is really a male judge. That provoked angry pro-life protesters, heckling them and the judge in particular as to how he could play God with lives.
I took from this book a more true to world life meaning. I saw a direct relationship to the many conflicts in war where we have intervened but then not really helped the country post intervention. Just like Adam who was left to fend for himself once he had been saved by Fiona. It provokes a moral dilemma not just about the life/death scenario but in the aftermath what does come next? Adam had been left vulnerable and exposed just like a country post war, there was no help for him and eventually it resulted in his suicide.
A thought provoking book, I’m glad I’ve read it.
P’s thoughts were:
As typical for a novel by Ian McEwan, the story does not so much aim to describe and develop the personalities involved, but wishes to explore a fundamental moral concept. The characters are more or less the “vehicles” to carry the arguments in that moral debate. However, this time Ian McEwan did better in giving his main characters a more rounded appearances, whereas in “Saturday” and “On Chesil Beach” (the other two novels I have read) the characters fall somewhat short of having a distinct personality.
The core moral question that is being explored in this novel is, as the title suggest, the welfare of children: “When a court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child, the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”; Section 1 (a), the Children Act 1989. However, the book goes beyond the constraints of legal considerations and puts in context the moral issue of children’s welfare in a secular world with the aspects of religion and divine laws.
The book’s main character is Fiona, a High Court judge in the Family Division, who has dedicated herself to her role, at the expense of her marriage. She and her husband Jack live in London and have been married for a long time, and although they have no children, this does not seem to have been something that had a negative impact on their relationship. Jack feels the desire to explore life in a sexual context before he is settling for old age, stating that he still loves her but feels that she has withdrawn from him in a sexual context, but it becomes apparent that this also extends to an emotional distance. Fiona reacts to this in a cold yet very composed way. She sends him away and changes the locks, thus isolating herself further from the world beyond the courtrooms.
Fiona puts her emotional distance down to a recent case in which she had to decide over life and death of two Siamese twins. The outcome of the case left her feeling as “not having a body, floating free of physical constraint, would have suited her best” (page 31). She is described by the Lord Chief Justice as “Godly distance, devilish understanding and still beautiful” (page 13). In the discussion with Jack it is mentioned that “The Jewish girls, Rachel and Nora, must hover behind her like Christian angels and wait. Their secular god had troubles of her own” (page 18). From all this we can presume that the author’s intention is to portray Fiona as the allegory of a deity, which is further supported by his choice of first name, “Fiona” – fair, white. (A bit like Lady Galadriel in LOTR!).
Fiona passes judgement on Jack in a way that is identical to the biblical story of God punishing Adam for his sexual transgression with Eve in Genesis. God is banishing Adam from Paradise, and sending him away to live with Eve in the human, mortal world. The name “Jack” in this context represents the average man in our modern world who still loves God but no longer lives by his rules.
If Fiona can be seen as representing God, we also meet his counterpart, Satan, represented by her colleague, Mr Justice Sherwood Runcie. Having equal powers as Fiona, Runcie had used his authority to ultimately drive an innocent woman to despair and death. The balance of power between good and evil is challenged by Jack (i.e. the representative of mortal men) when he “unhelpfully took an interest in the case and when it suited him, when things weren’t well between them, loudly loathed her profession and her implication in it, as if she herself had written the judgement” (page 51). Yet Fiona is unable to intervene, as the laws of good and evil are binding for all. In religion, even God does not undo Satan’s work, as one key question of Christianity always is, “Why does God allow for bad things to happen?” a challenge repeated by Jack in this context.
When Fiona gets involved in Adam Henry’s case, the religious debate takes place in a more open manner, given that Adam comes from a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their first encounter in hospital is the centrepiece of the book, with much of their conversation overarching towards the future events (it also happens to be the central chapter 3 out of 5). Throughout the chapter about her visit to Adam, she is accompanied by the social worker Marina Greene, who can be perceived as the female counterpart to the human Fiona. Marina’s life is slightly chaotic due to her divided responsibilities between her job and her children, yet Marina is portrayed as a warm and caring person, with Adam’s emotional well-being as her main professional concern: “A child shouldn’t go killing himself for the sake of religion” (page 83).
During the course of their encounter, Fiona and Adam begin to form an emotional bond which goes beyond the legal aspects of Adam’s wish to not receive a blood transfusion. Fiona develops a deep respect for Adam’s intellectual abilities, but more so for his hidden desire to live. Adam’s poetry touches her, and for the first time she gets off her “divine throne” and joins in with a mortal pursuit, i.e. singing to his violin play. For Adam, Fiona offers a unique chance to discuss his thoughts, hopes and concerns with an adult who does not have a pre-defined opinion but rather is open-minded and listens to him. Unlike his parents, his church elders and the medical staff, Fiona does not try to persuade him towards a certain course of action but simply tries to establish his competence to make his own choice.
In the religious context, it is impossible to ignore the choice of first name for the book’s second main character, Adam. Here the link to the Bible is of course obvious – Adam being the first man, rebelling against God’s commands by eating from the tree of knowledge. At this point in the story, the act of rebelling appears to be to renounce his chances of survival by rejecting the medical treatment available, thus rebelling against the view of the secular world that a life has to be saved at all cost.
We do find however, that Adam is beginning to forge a bond with his secular judge, a relationship which begins to resemble that of a mother and a teenage son. The final exchange of words in their conversation are key to understanding his feelings for Fiona, with the final question hanging in the air throughout the rest of the story: “Are you coming back?”
Fiona reaches her verdict in the matter based on the Children’s Act and putting Adam’s welfare at the centre of her ruling, which in her judgement is that “his life is more precious than his dignity” (page 123). She finds that Adam has not had the opportunity to experience life outside his confined religious environment, and that by saving his life through permitting blood transfusions is giving him the freedom to explore the world beyond those constraints. The secular god Fiona is therefore giving Adam permission to rebel against his sect’s religious teachings and demands, handing over the full responsibility for his own life to him.
As a consequence, Adam begins to seek out Fiona, first by sending her letters, then by seeking her out in person while she is staying in Newcastle. It becomes clear that Adam has fallen out with his parents and his religious community and stands alone in the pursuit of a worldly life. Despite his academic achievements at school, his emotional development in a secular world is fragile, a typical teenager, but with no-one to turn to for guidance and support. He believes that Fiona is the right person to provide an understanding throughout his development into a free-thinking adult in his new found liberty. Fiona however declines this suggestion which is a thinly veiled call for help, and she is unable to show a human and caring side beyond her moral obligation to protect his welfare.
Then Fiona makes the mistake of briefly kissing Adam, and instantly sending him away to his aunt. This probably leaves Adam utterly confused and feeling rejected, although there is no direct account of his emotional state. “With a brusque movement of his shoulders, Adam seemed to shake himself free of all of them and ducked into the back seat and sat with the bag on his lap, staring straight ahead” (page 170). It is fair to assume that Adam now feels incredibly lonely, with nobody around him accepting him as he the person he has become.
Fiona’s marriage is beginning its slow recovery, with Jack moving back into their apartment. Fiona is still emotionally reserved but appears gradually to be grateful to Jack’s efforts. With her attention focussed on her work and her main personal interest being the salvation of her marriage, Fiona does not wish to hear from Adam again, and dismisses the final poem that he sends her. Only later she discovers that this was his cry for help, his desperate last attempt to gain her attention. In a similar scenario, Fiona is also unwilling to engage with her colleague Mark Berner’s disappointment in the judicial system when he confides in her during their recitals. Instead she is eager to start playing her music for the Christmas performance. It becomes apparent later that music is Fiona’s only way to express her emotions and to escape from her role as High Court Judge. “For fifty-five minutes they forgot about the law” (page 191).
Fiona and Jack are heading for a full reconciliation at the night of her musical recital. “For the first time in more than a year, a well-established fire in the grate…” (page 193). Fiona is looking forward to the concert in the Great Hall and the opportunity to express herself via her music. But just before the start of the concert, she is caught by the Sherwood Runcie (the devil in disguise) who, as we find out later, tells her about Adam’s death and presumably the circumstances in which he died. Fiona still has the self-discipline to see through her performance with Mark Berner but during the concert it becomes apparent by the way in which she plays her music and the fact that she changes the last encore to the song she taught Adam, that the message of Adams’s suicide is beginning to sink in.
Fiona realises the part that she played in Adam’s decision to return to the Jehovah’s witnesses and the subsequent refusal of a new blood transfusion which ultimately led to his death. When she finally reads the last line of his poem it becomes clear that he had been warning her of this outcome. Adam’s true rebellion against God’s law may have been in fact his rejection of the new secular life that Fiona had given him and which she expected him to treasure in a world free from religion.
She finally lets go of her emotional constraint and starts to weep, therefore showing her human side which she has been trying to conceal from the world. She realises that it had not been enough to give Adam his life by her ruling as a High Court Judge, but that his welfare had desperately depended on her humanity as well. Despite showing concern for his well-being in her role as a judge, she was unable to subsequently give him the guidance he needed to survive in the secular world. But it is this failure that ultimately makes her human with all the imperfections of human life. By showing her vulnerability and sharing her sorrow with her husband Jack, there is hope for true reconciliation and a new beginning as equals.
In conclusion, the overarching moral question that the author is exploring in this book is about the true content of what constitutes a child’s welfare. It is not enough to establish the legal framework to protect children from harm, but it is vital for a child’s welfare to provide a loving, caring and understanding environment in which the child can thrive and become a confident adult.
Furthermore,in the wider dimension of the religious context, we are all defined as God’s children. Therefore the theme expands to include not just children but all of humankind.
The rest of the group had the following thoughts:
~ The book’s subject matter was thought provoking and disturbing with morals and ethics.
~ The characters were well portrayed and believable, but that said, some of us felt the kiss wasn’t plausible and felt her character wouldn’t have done that. Apart from that, we liked her character and wondered what she would have become had Newcastle changed her and she hadn’t been thrown over?
~ Poignant that the parents were ‘relieved’ at the verdict as the Judge had taken the decision away from them, so the parents could stay in their faith as they hadn’t gone against the faith’s teachings.
~ How much influence do religions and sects have?
~ Also poignant that she had put off having a family for her career and now when it was too late and the profound sadness about their childlessness/what might have been and the state and stage at which their marriage was at. The book is as much about Fiona’s marriage and the ‘danger’ of silences and lack of communication. There were some lovely and sensitive descriptions about their marriage, particularly when they were getting back together, such as the coffee/breakfast scenario. Also that the lack of emotional intimacy was connected to the lack of physical intimacy which stated to go wrong after a previous case with the twins had affected her more than she realised and she would have been unable to talk about it with Jack due to confidentiality, but afterwards found it difficult to communicate her feelings and so without realising it, became more and more withdrawn.
~ Both Fiona and Adam were at a crisis point in their lives, which evoked their connection with each other.
~ At times some of us felt the style of writing seemed a little sterile. Some didn’t warm to the author.
7.5 out of 10
May 2015: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger. But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it. Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.
Everyone, except Maud.
From the West Hill Group
In general, all enjoyed this book and felt that it covered a very difficult topic with sincerity and sympathy.
One member felt that the storyline was very good and that suspense built up steadily through the book but felt that she was left hanging on too long to find out what actually did happen to Elizabeth and she had skipped through the last few chapters through frustration.
In contrast, another member felt that the suspense and delayed outcome may have been deliberate on the author’s part just to reiterate and try to portray the confusion of a troubled mind i.e someone suffering from dementia etc.
From Colyton (Tuesdays) Book Group
Six met to discuss the book. One member had not read it. Having read the sample and got annoyed by it, thought she would be a rebel and not read it – the first book she has not read since joining. (Having heard the reviews, she is still glad she did not, and will not be doing so in the future!)
The others all read it, and the general sense was that it was a sad book and that although what was happening to Maud was awful, her whole life had not been good. Her daughter seems to be the only bit of light in her life – doing over and above her ‘duty’. Her father did not show his emotions – but it was thought that this was because of the period of time, that it wasn’t the ‘done thing’.
Many felt that they did not learn any more about the illness by reading the book, but some could relate to it having had family members go through the same.
Maud was clearly confused – both her friend and sister were/have been missing – and she was mixed up between looking for one and the other. Also thought granddaughter was her daughter – did they look similar?
Some expected more – they guessed the ending – and were right!
A large piece of the conversation was about who killed Sukey, was it Frank, Douglas, or Douglas’s mother? In the end it was a draw between Frank and Douglas. Did the author deliberately not tell you so you were left confused like Maud?
The main consensus is that it was well written and we wondered what the author’s experience with this was at such a young age. Although there were murmurings about her maybe trying to be a bit too clever interweaving the two stories.
No-one would really recommend it, other than to someone who had a family member or friend going through the same, to maybe help them understand a bit more.
Final score 7/10.
From Colyton (Thursdays) Book Group
There was a lot of praise for what was considered a very impressive and cleverly written debut novel. The subject matter is, of course, very sensitive and it was felt that this should be a compulsory text for those working with the elderly as it was handled so well – with just the right combination of understanding and wit.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter there was a lot of humour with some beautifully observed and poignant touches – the peaches, the post-it notes, the sympathetic policeman and the teenage grand-daughter mistaken for slovenly staff! It was the considered view that these details must have been based on first hand observation – either an earlier career or personal involvement with someone suffering from dementia.
The juxtaposition of the story of present times – with which Maud was increasingly losing touch – and the decades old mystery of the disappearance of Sukey was beautifully handled. The ease with which Maud recalled the most precise details from this time way back threw into even sharper relief her uncertain grip on the present. The book evoked a lot of empathy with and sympathy for both Maud and her daughter who was described as sainted.
Many were initially confused by the fact that nobody seemed to put Maud’s mind at rest (would that this were possible) by simply telling her that her friend Elizabeth wasn’t really missing. But then, of course, it dawned on us that we had an unreliable narrator (at least for recent history) and that on multiple occasions exactly that assurance had been given. Maud had, we later learned, even visited her friend in hospital. In view of that – even though he was painted as an unpleasant character – we perhaps felt some sympathy for Elizabeth’s son who was facing problems of his own.
There was some confusion about the lodger, a rather shadowy character, and the exact nature of his role in the story. Was it just that his friendship with Sukey precipitated her murder at the hands of her jealous husband or was he there perhaps to illustrate the changes in attitudes to mental illness over the decades via the portrayal of his mother – dismissed as the mad woman. Alternatively, was he really the guilty party? Whilst circumstantial evidence did point to the husband as killer, was he somehow to blame?
We awarded the book 7 out of 10. Probably the score should have been higher but for the fact that this can be a disturbing read based on your personal perspective of Maud’s illness. It was agreed that this could well detract from a proper appreciation of the novel.
From the Honiton/Ottery Book Group
As a group, we felt it was one of the best books we had read in our time in the book club.
One of us felt it was confusing in parts, but maybe that was the intention. The structure of the story was different. All hung on memory or memories, which made it interesting with long term memory being spoken of in detail but the short term memory easily forgotten or mixed up. We also though the sister’s murder and going back in time was well woven into the story.
One of us felt frustrated that it appeared that Elizabeth’s disappearance was not explained properly to Maud by her daughter, but also realised this was intentional on the part of the author so to create tension and allude to the fact that Maud had mostly likely forgotten what she had been told. Some of us felt the daughter went over and above what she needed to do for her mother, making her the heroine of the story as so patient and loving.
We thought the ‘marrow question’ was one of the main connections throughout her life from her sister’s murder to asking Helen where the best place to plant marrows was. Perhaps subconsciously she always had an inkling of who had murdered her sister and where he had buried her.
It was interesting to read it from Maud’s perspective.
Some thought the males in the story we almost marginalised and the story was told through the females. E.g. Helen had no mention of a husband, Maud’s father was in the background and the Mad Lady had no other support other than her son occasionally.
Score 8½ out of 10
From the Sidmouth/Newton Popplefield Group
This book covered a difficult subject dealt with in an innovative and thought provoking way. The book made us think about Alzheimer’s both as a relative and the person suffering with it. We were impressed how the author wove the story into Elizabeth’s confusion and feeling of being threatened. Overall it was well-crafted and written.
From the Exeter Group
The Globe in Topsham provided a comfortable venue to discuss Elizabeth is Missing. The book was universally enjoyed by those present and felt to be an impressive first novel. The insight with which Emma wrote lead to the inevitable conclusion that she had had some personal experience with dementia.
We enjoyed the use of her unimpaired early memories to flip back in time to provide glimpses into her “untold story”. The contrast of her chaotic memory and behaviour in the present day was stark and in keeping with the symptoms of her disease. The interchange between these two settings was beautifully played and tantalising in the fact that it would often take two or three paragraphs before the reader realised which was which!
It was also noted how Maud would keep returning to extremely significant facts of her previous life (tins of peaches, growing marrows etc) which in the present seemed obscure and bizarre to others. These recollections provided an alternative whodunnit to her lost sister Sukie. So not only was Elizabeth missing but so was Sukie.
The ending…..a little too neat or poetic justice?
Score 7½ out of 10
March 2015: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Set in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Havana, Hemingway’s magnificent fable is the tale of an old man, a young boy and a giant fish. This story of heroic endeavour won Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature. It stands as a unique and timeless vision of the beauty and grief of man’s challenge to the elements.
From the Sidmouth/Newton Popplefield Group
We felt it was a curious read – interesting but implausible. It touched on the themes of loneliness, friendship and ageing. We felt that we were probably missing something in terms of a metaphor. It seemed like this was a story about the single-mindedness of men and manhood (I respect you but I am going to master you). After all the physical effort, the fish was eaten, making the kill unjustified. Is there a meaning in the fish being eaten by the shark? We would have liked to have re-read this book with student notes to hand!
From Colyton (Thursdays) Book Group
Not all had found the time to read this so discussion was limited. However those who had shared the opinion that this was definitely (and perhaps unexpectedly) a worthwhile read. None of us professed any previous interest in or knowledge of fishing. Yet we found the apparently simple story surprisingly compelling as we were drawn into the community of the endearing old man as he pitted himself against the sea. The characters of the old man and the young boy who so clearly adored him were beautifully drawn and we found ourselves really rooting for the man as he battled to bring the marlin back to shore. We recommended it to those who had missed out.
From Colyton (Tuesdays) Book Group
Simple. Slightly slow at first – but generally the group warmed to the story. The further you read along, the more you felt for the old man. The relationship between the boy and the old man was felt to be very touching – a shame though we weren’t given more details about the boy e.g. we weren’t given his age or even his name.
General opinion was that there was a very male feel to the book – which was in line with other Ernest Hemingway books (somewhat of a misogynist). It was also very factual – we even learnt about new types of sharks. However it became somewhat repetitive, with a very non Disney ending.
Although the end was disappointing, in that the old man was unable to bring in the fish complete to shore, we felt that the size of the skeleton gave him kudos enough. However still left somewhat wondering exactly why Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for writing for this particular piece.
NB Certain versions of the book had some great illustrations – which helped give some colour to the detailed descriptions.
Overall we gave this a 6.5 – the general view was that the book was well written and likely enthralling at the time written – but now somewhat dated.
From the West Hill Book Group
We all agreed that it was really nice to have a short text – we all felt that we hardly ever pick up a short text or short story to read and it was quite a refreshing change. We also felt it was good to read one of the “classics” as they are “classics” for a reason and they are not always an obvious choice to pick up.
One of our group said the book had inspired her to find out a bit more about Hemingway and his life. We all agreed that the descriptive narrative was believable and we all conjured up a picture of an elderly gent with very tanned weather-beaten skin and sinewy limbs, his apparent frailty belying an inner strength and ability gained from years of experience. We also felt that superstition and faith were strong ethics portrayed throughout.
We all agreed that the battle with the fish was cleverly described and no-one really knew what the eventual outcome was going to be – and which one would come out the winner, man or fish.
January 2015: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson
From the Sidmouth/Newton Popplefield Book Group
Admired the research that the author had done to be able to portray the Marchalsea so well. Enjoyed reading a historical novel NOT set in Tudor/Victorian times for a change.
Thought the characterisation was very poor. Narrator was an idiot rather than a “hero” (ie a leading character that the reader is inspired to care about). The dangerous cellmate that was supposed to be so feared wasn’t scary at all… etc. Plot needed tightening up. It all got a bit out of hand and meandering towards the end and I’d stopped caring about what happened.
Plot was too convenient at end as a spying situation.
Little touches like lighter boy were interesting.
If I’d gone on my impression from the blurb I wouldn’t have read the book but I actually enjoyed it.
Overall I won’t bother reading the sequel(s). For historical I prefer CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series.
~ Did you enjoy the book? 3.5/5
~ Did you relate to the characters? 3/5
~ Was it well written? 3/5
~ Was the book well structured? 2.5/5
~ Would you recommend the book? 2/5
From the Colyford-Thursdays Book Group
Hoorah – was the initial reaction – a book we actually enjoyed was the response by the Group when we met on Thursday. Within the exception of one pathetic individual who skipped parts because she could not bear the setting and suffering that must follow (It is alright I am not offending anyone!) It is easy to read and the first book the one member felt able to recommend to friends and family.
Our discussion then ranged on to the setting, characters and the ending. Our knowledge of debtor prisons in the eighteenth century was rather limited and the awareness that this book was based on a true life story impressed us and provided the appropriate level of interest and challenge. We were interested in the description of the prison and the kind of ‘village’ life that abounded. There was some confusion and difficulty in visualising the prison and its separate areas but that did not intrude too much on enjoyment of the story. Comparison was also made with the workhouse and perhaps because we were meeting on Holocaust Day with other imprisonments. Man’s inhumanity to man is very difficult to understand and we would find life in Eighteenth century very difficult and the context of this book around the time of the South Sea Bubble crises and coronation of George III was beyond our usual knowledge. Debt is still a problem and we compared pay day loans today with the circumstances in the prison and how once in trouble it becomes more difficult to dig oneself out.
The skill of Antonia Hodgson in creating characters that we liked and wanted to read about was evident ( and an excuse for that skim reader who chickened out on reading the book properly) Tom was an honest and likeable hero but other more doubtful characters like Mr Fleet and Trim were also liked. The way the story developed is a testament to the skill of the author – most of us could not have predicted that Jakes was the villain or that Charles was not the friend Tom deserved.
This brings us to the ending – it was refreshing to have a happy and nicely rounded off ending and most of us were pleased but at least one of us thought it was silly and even predictable!.
Overall this book which crossed several genres – historical and mystery- was a success. We could imagine it making a good film – Edie Redmayne as the hero- well maybe! Thanks to our observant member who spotted a sequel to look forward to. The Last confession of Thomas Hawkins due to be released in June 2015.
The book was scored 8 out of 10.
From the Honiton/Ottery Book Group
S thought : This novel like many reading group suggestions is probably one that I wouldn’t have chosen myself but it is one that I would now recommend to you. ‘The Devil in the Marshalsea’ is an atmospheric murder mystery based in 18th Century London and features characters who would have been at home in a Dickens’ novel. The scene is set in the dark and violent world of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison where Tom Hawkins finds himself after an unfortunate series of events not entirely of his own making. He soon finds himself at the centre of a mystery surrounding the murder of Captain Roberts. Robert’s widow has vowed to find her husband’s killer and Tom Hawkins resolves to solve the mystery as the only route out of the prison. Death is never far from Tom in the Marshalsea and the descriptions of violence at the hand of the Governor, William Acton do not make this a cheerful read it is nevertheless a compelling story. Many of the characters are based on real people of the time and together with the research that the author Antonia Hodgson has made make this a realistic depiction of life in the 18th Century. This is a winter night book is a page-turner that you will want to read curled up in a cosy armchair with a warming drink to hand but be warned that you may not want to be entirely alone!
C thought : I loved this book, it gripped me right from the beginning. The attention to historical detail was fascinating to read. I liked the notes at the back of the book giving authenticity to the writing.
With the main characters it just shows that life is about luck and which side of the fence you might fall by the toss of a coin. You never knew which way the story was going to turn and I couldn’t put it down until I knew how it concluded.
From a member of the Exmouth Book Group
Nearly finished the book & love it – didn’t really know about debtors prisons so helpful historical lesson as well as captivating read. Really enjoying the suspense & descriptions of life in such an institution.
From a member of the Axminster Book Group
I did enjoy this story – it was an easy read – though I have to admit I was a bit disappointed with who the perpetrators turned out to be and I had hoped for an ending which would remove the Governor and all his cronies who were all equally evil!
From the Colyford-Tuesdays Book Group
All 6 members of the Club enjoyed this book and would recommend it to others, saying it was an easy read – “an enjoyable Dickens” and provided an interesting insight into a Georgian debtor’s prison and life in London in the early 18th Century.
The historical facts added to the novel and highlighted the corruption of the era and the brutal existence within the prison and in the back streets of London. We liked the blend of real people and fictional characters being interwoven in the tale and it was interesting to read the research Hodgson had undertaken in this respect; some had read this prior to reading the novel and felt it added to the enjoyment, others were glad they had only read it at the end. The use of swearing in the book was reasonably authentic but it was felt that it would have been better if she had also used some of the old swear words and language of that era.
We enjoyed the mystery and the “who done it” style of the book, only one person had guessed who the murderer was early on in the novel. Some felt that the characters did not remain constant throughout the book, changing their personalities to fit into the story line, however this did not detract too much from the enjoyment and was necessary to reveal different aspects of the characters in a true “who done it” genre. We thought it would make a really good film as the characters were strong and colourful, especially the women. We questioned whether Moll was in cahoots with Charles – perhaps this will be revealed in the sequel.
Hodgson’s descriptive writing drew on all the senses and highlighted the dreadful conditions within the Marshalsea and some compared it to the atmospheric descriptions in “A Fine Balance”, in that you could almost hear, see and smell the horrors. The stark contrast of the setting was likened to heaven (the outside world) , purgatory (the Master’s Side) and hell (the Common Side). We were surprised to learn that debtor’s prisons were privately run for profit and although the prisoners within The Marshalsea were there because they owed money, their only means of survival within it was to pay their way, using bribes, earning money or relying on others to give them funds and perpetuating the debt – this was compared to the misery of today’s “Pay Day Loan” system of spiralling debt. We felt that Hodgson effectively highlighted the disparity of lifestyle within the prison between those who could afford to pay on the Master’s side and those who couldn’t on the Common side – and how easily it was to cross that divide and how it was almost impossible to return.
Another fascinating aspect that Hodgson revealed about life in The Marshalsea was the strange community that existed within the prison with coffee shops, barbers, bars and cafés. Some felt that prisoners, especially Fleet, treated it as a safe haven from the danger they faced on the street.
Not many people had sympathy with Tom and saw him as a bit of a cad and felt that Charles had done him a favour in subjecting him to time in The Marshalsea. However in the end they felt he had been humbled by the experience. Some felt the ending was a little weak and a bit slushy in comparison to the rest of the book, but on saying this they were keen to read the sequel which follows Tom’s and Kitty’s lives on the outside.
We gave the novel 8 out of 10.
From the Exeter Book Group
A title like The Devil in the Marshalsea leads readers to expect a dark and dastardly tale and Antonia Hodgson delivers, but not with sufficient aplomb to make it believable. And this is where reactions to the book diverged. Some of our group were happy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the book as an entertaining historical whodunnit, others were more critical of the rather improbable connections (Charles accidentally employs Fleet’s brother), the unlikely motive for the crime and then actions of the murderer (if you accidentally kill a friend whom you’re just trying to beat a bit of religious sense into, would you then really hang him by the neck to save him from the rats?), the somewhat expected twists (come on, you knew all along that Fleet was not the real baddy and that one of the “good eggs” would turn out to be not quite what he/she seemed) and the all too convenient (and predictable) ending. What we all liked was the description of the prison. None of us really warmed to Tom though. We get the message that he is a charming, feckless rogue, but can’t quite see what appeal he holds for Fleet, Kitty or anyone else for that matter. He seems rather dense, but perhaps that’s why his friend Charles picked him to solve the murder. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining romp and surprised some of us into liking it more than we expected to after all the other historical fiction. It was however criticised for its breathtaking speed of action. Everything happens within the space of just a few days, while the women seemed to flash from flirtation to fury in the blink of an eye. Was any woman ever so quickly forgiving as Kitty?
“I saw you flirting on the yacht!”
“I wasn’t flirting, Kitty.”
“No? Oh, well that’s all right then, come and live with me and share my new fortune!”.
All in all we gave it an average 4.5 out of 10.