Middlemarch by George Eliot – Review

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“Character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

Middlemarch is the perennial favourite of well-read parents everywhere, and my mother was no exception to this. That guaranteed that that I would do everything I could to avoid this book as a sulky teenager, and as adulthood began to creep along I merely forgot it existed.

This year, after reading a number of the looming geniuses of 19th century England (and having discovered that the writing there was, unsurprising to everyone but me, bloody good), an essay by the incredible Zadie Smith went over just how special this book is to her and should be to others. So, I decided to finally give George Eliot a go.

I began reading and thought:

“Okay, so Middlemarch has one of the best written opening paragraphs in fiction. Not a bad start.”

I kept reading.

“Right, so Middlemarch has one of the most gorgeous opening pages in fiction. This is a great start.”

I kept reading.

Three weeks later, after forcing myself to take the novel slowly—I wanted to savour the experience—I was in love with Middlemarch in a way I have been in love with very few books. Yes, that’s a melodramatic way of describing how certain books can make you feel. In my experience, it’s also an accurate one.

The omniscient narrator gives us an all-encompassing view of life which only 19th century novels can pull off with such lightness. I’ve recently become fascinated with authors who can truly create multiple personalities within a single novel; David Mitchell and Susan Barker are great examples of this rare talent, but if they’re chameleons then George Eliot was a shape-shifter.

Young, old, handsome, homely; poor; rich; there’s no one Eliot can’t write fully fleshed. She was absurdly talented at expressing the intricacies and individualities of humanity, and she did so without demonizing those who held views likely extraordinarily different to her own.

This is by far the least plot-driven book to sit on my favourites’ shelf; the actual events are small scale by design. That small acts can have huge implications for those we live with is one of Eliot’s central conceits, but this means it’s difficult to express what makes this book special succinctly. George Eliot describes this feeling of the gap between experience and explanations better than I can, unsurprisingly. Near the end of the novel, Celia asks Dorothea to explain just how a surprising relationships came about:

“Can’t you tell me?” said Celia, settling her arms cozily.

“No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.

 

Foundation: The History of England [Volume 1] by Peter Ackroyd – Review

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I recently had the realisation that I grew up in England, went to school in England, got a history degree in England… and yet was embarrassingly ignorant about how this country actually formed. I’d absorbed the basics of life since the Tudors, sure—those years had been hammered into my head by patient teachers in between naps—but what about how people had actually settled this land in the first place? Why had the Roman Empire spent so many resources to keep such a small, soggy island? What the hell did Richard the Lionheart actually do, aside from something something Crusades mumble mumble and his brief appearance in Disney’s Robin Hood?

So, I decided to remedy this, and picked up Foundation by Peter Ackroyd. This book has a lot of ambition. It wants to fold a country inside of its pages, and as such it’s light on detail but heavy on content. If fitting the total history of a country onto five hundred pieces of paper—15,000 BC to the modern day—sounds impossible, that’s because it is. There aren’t gaps in content here so much as caverns. That’s acceptable with pop-history, though, and if you crack the spine of this thing with managed expectations you’ll get an impressive outline of how England became England.

There are annoying interjections at times, with Ackroyd making assertions and declarations that scream out for explanation. You’ll be reading about a random Royal or Important Figure, and Ackroyd will casually mention how they boiled they boiled children, or fought a bear, or caught syphilis from a nun (I might be exaggerating the ridiculousness of some of these slightly, but not as much as you might think). And then quickly move on. “Wait!” the reader cries out. “Tell us more about the damn nun!” Nope, back to agriculture we go.

Every issue I had with this book came down to  the same lack of depth, which is extremely unfair of me considering that Ackroyd’s breezy approach to history is why I bothered to pick this up in the first place. There are fascinating details scattered throughout, and Ackroyd is an adept storyteller. His writing occasionally bordered on too melodramatic for my taste, but that may just be because I trudged through enough dry history books during university that I’ve developed a tolerance for dullness.

If you want a crash course in this weird little country of ours, Foundation is a promising place to start. It’s flagrantly unacademic, and as such gets a bit carried away with sweeping statements about some complicated issues, but that’s part of why it stays enjoyable; go in expecting to take some passages with a pinch of salt and you’ll be more than satisfied.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – Review

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Learning to Love Dickens. 

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Until David Copperfield, I had never finished a Charles Dickens book. As a teenager I managed three pages of Great Expectations before throwing it down in a huff. I must have really hated those three pages, because I went the next ten years convinced, not just that I didn’t like Great Expectations, but that I didn’t like Charles Dickens.

This was a fairly stupid thing to believe considering I’d only read around 0.0001% of his total work, but it was one that stuck for a long time. It only took two pages of David Copperfield for me to realize that I’d been missing out. His words can practically produce sparks in your brain.

A young David Copperfield is orphaned and left in the charge of his evil step-father. We watch him run away, come back, fall in love, make some intensely stupid decisions, and, finally, grow up. Think Harry Potter, if instead of becoming a wizard he tries to become a lawyer and novelist. It’s also much more interesting than that last sentence makes it sound.

When older novels are fun, there are normally some hefty conditions. “Fun, but“s, put another way. Classics can suffer from the sheer amount of time that’s passed since their release, and the humour comes across as antiquated and cliche. Dickens, however, is funny, not in spite of the age he comes from but because of it. He saw as much absurdity in the Victorian society as a modern man who time traveled would do.

Money and its numerous stresses keep the novel relevant to our modern bank-and-debt dominated society. There’s a great moment where Mr Micawber gives some basic but much needed financial (Micawber doesn’t listen to himself in this regard), for instance:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Tears are shed (frequently). David is almost angelic when he’s young, but the slow creep of maturity mixed with naivete let him be taken advantage of constantly. It’s sad to see him become more aware of predatory ways, but his innocence withers slowly, so it’s like a child learning that Father Christmas isn’t real over the course of decades.

Dickens digs through the archaic aspects of his society and finds the universal struggles of his characters, who are obviously archetypal but bubbling with enough energy and complexity that you have become intensely invested in them by the end of the book. Archaic institutions likes debtors prisons and Doctors’ Commons feel convoluted yet familiar, and while houses made from boats and ridiculous names might come across as over-the-top, but part of the fun of this novel is letting the melodrama wash over you.

It’s gooey and occasionally sickeningly sweet, but in a good way, like chocolate. The bad guys might as well twirl their mustaches and many of the good characters practically have halos, but there are also keen observations about the horrors of industrial life and the nature of modern existence; think Dostoevsky combined with Disney. There’s no denying that’s this is an over the top novel, but it’s bloody fun too if you’ve got some patience.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

“Look… we’re getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. I can see through Eastern values just as you can see through our Western ones. […] Don’t you think it’s time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”

Spy novels have never gripped me. I don’t know why – maybe I grew up so surrounded by over-the-top versions of suave, sneaky secret agents that a “serious spy novel” almost felt like a contradiction in terms. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very serious spy novel set in the Cold War. Great Britain is soaking, battered and tired, and the men who are tasked with “protecting” it are just old enough to long for days when their country felt glorious. While occasionally dry enough that you could confuse the pages for sandpaper, this a satisfying, occasionally confusing read.

George Smiley, our protagonist, is a round, pasty, recently-fired fellow who wears ill-fitting suits and until recently was one of the most intelligent and formidable spies in British intelligence. MI5—sorry, “The Circus” (Carre, due to his own extensive history with intelligence services for the UK, was asked to change numerous details in the novel to avoid revealing too much real information) has been given evidence that one of his old chums is a Russian mole. He is tasked with finding the traitor.

Carre shines when it comes to dialogue, and seeing these fiercely intelligent men and women match wits is a treat. All the characters have detailed, interesting backstories. They feel relateable in their concerns and worries, and provide an interesting look into how real spies might think and operate. Just what would a life of betrayal do to your psyche? When you have tricked so many people, do you have it in your heart to truly hate the person who switches your world over and bamboozles you?

The amount of paperwork sifted through is impressive, as is that a book with so little action can feel so tense. Like with any good mystery story, you have the puzzle pieces from almost the beginning, but you can’t quite tell what the picture is until it’s finally all put together.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

A desperate need to make sense of the world occupies a young boy in provincial England, and we watch as his future shifts in ways out of his control while he navigates his third year at secondary school.

If there is one area of writing where David Mitchell excels, it’s voices. In two or three sentences, he can make a character crawl out from the book pages and say, “Hello, I’m several people from across your life unified in one person. Remember me?” It’s almost eerie how fast he can make a character feel complex and interesting.

There’s a fine line when writing about teenagers, as trying to capture the self-centred nature inherent to most can be irritating to older readers, but if you go too far the other way the characters feel almost inhuman, like they’re lifeless cypher a being used by the author to make a point about their own childhood. The main character here has a naivety which is relatable, but never crosses into frustrating. That is just hard to pull off.

Mitchell is great at understanding the unspoken rules of teenage boys, the way word-choices, nicknames, and even the place you sit on the bus can act as a way the rest of the world can use to judge you, place you.

Black Swan Green captures the claustrophobia inherent to adolescence, the constriction many feel every time the uncomfortable realities of adult life creep closer towards them. He understands but never glorifies youth. He accepts that growing up can be extraordinarily painful and boring, but it can change you in ways you would never give up for the world.