Jeannie Van Rompaey

Writers are readers

 

When I’m not writing you’ll usually find me reading. What do I read? Like most people I like to keep up with current affairs. I read the news on various websites. I believe it restricting to only read one newspaper – even though my favourite articles tend to be in The Guardian. When I get frustrated, furious and completely pissed off with what’s happening in world politics – quite usual – you will not be surprised to learn that I turn to the Arts section reading reviews of films, art exhibitions, books and theatre. As most of you must realise by now I’m a theatre addict. As I don’t live in England I have to choose the plays I see there very carefully. When I am in London  (three or four times a year) I go to the theare most nights anad even manage to fit in at least one matinée. I often see at least five plays in one week. To help me choose these carefully I read reviews by critics I respect. Top of the list is Michael Billington, the knowledgeable but ever open-minded dramaturg, who writes in the The Guardian. To make sure I’m not entirely dependent on his opinions I do check other sources too.

My other reading is varied. As I’m a novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright, I write and read a lot of fiction, but I do read non-fiction too. The latter widens my knowledge of the world.  When I read fiction it is work! A learning process to help improve my own writing. I like to analyse how the author tells the story, how the characters develop and how the story is structured. My first criteria when choosing a book is the writing style. If it’s not well-written I have no desire to read it. I’m easily bored by light commercial fiction of whatever genre. I like a book with some meat in it, to make me work to get to grips with the theme and understand the subtleties of the subtext. Non-linear complex structures with different perspectives interest me. My main interest therfore is literary fiction. I hope that a little of the magic from the literary writers will rub off on to me.

Here is a selection of the books I have read so far this year from January to March 2017 and my thoughts about them.

Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes

Fascinating series of short stories based on first hand experience of visits to the Calais refugee camps. Can these stories help to bridge the gap betwwen the aspirations of refugees intent on building new lives and the fears of people who feel the necessity to close their borders?

In my opinion it is one of the things that fiction is designed to do, to make us look at both sides of an issue. Some of these stories are told from the point of view of the refugees, others from the perspective of the volunteeers or locals. Each story reads as an authentic portrayal of the situation, food for thought for those of us who didn’t go to visit “the jungle” before it was dismantled.

These stories will make readers more aware of what living in these kind of camps is like. Hopefully it will give food for thought about what can be done about the dilemma of how to help the increasing number of the world’s refugees.

Liza’s England by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is one of my favourite. authors. She’s a historian and writes in a realistic way about the early part of 20th century, particularly about the after effects of the First World War. The Regeneration Trilogy and other books with the same characters – Art Class and Toby’s War – follow the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of friends who studied together. I read these books first and was hooked.

Liza’s England tells the story of a woman born at the beginning of the century, now in her eighties and that of a young man, Stephen, who has the unenviable task of telling her that the house where she has lived for years is due to be demolished. She will be rehoused, but she doesn’t want to move. The point of view shifts between Liza and Stephen as she looks back on her life and Stephen thinks about his future. A bond of affection and respect grows between this resilient old woman and the ensitve, caring young man.

What interested me most was the development of this relationship but I was also drawn into the story by Liza’s complete acceptance of her role in iife. Daughter, wife, mother, carer. She doesn’t question these traditional female roles, just lives them. Despite her feckless husbnad, Liza does her best to bring up her children on very little money. After her husband has gone, she earns the necessary money to feed her children any way she can, often by hard labour, such as scavenging for coal. She takes in her ailing mother and looks after her even though her mother admits she’s never loved her. She’d only ever wanted boys. Her cantankerous mother had had a hard life too, having fifiteen children with only nine surviving. Their lives are shown without sentimentality. in a matter-of-fact way. For them it’s the norm.

I couldn’t help thinking what a contrast Liza’s attitude to life is to modern women’s expectations and aspirations. This novel, without preaching or complaining, reminds us how even the lives of the most underprivileged women in our society have changed. But I couldn’t help wondering if the feisty spirit of the Liza’s of this world has been lost in the change?

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I was gripped by this portrait of two families, the mixed race liberals and the conservative black family. I found the tensions in both families and the children’s independent beliefs and attitudes very real. This is a campus novel with a difference.

I do feel that Zadie Smith’s own feelings intrude a little. She was an author “in love” with one of her characters, Kiki. It is as if she is trying to impress on her readers that big, black and beautiful is the ideal. Smith has little time for Kiki’s white husband who is led by what is in pants into a misguided affair with a thin, white colleague, Claire, and is tempted by Monty’s daughter, who is beautiful in another way. Victoria is aware of her beauty and ruthless in her attempts fo seduce Howard. WE ask ourselves how can such a clever man be so stupid. Well, it happens.

The complex relationships in the novel are both amusing and tragic. Some – such as Carlene’s relationship with husband, Monty, are only hinted at – I love that subtle technique, allowing the reader to decide for herself what is wrong. This mixture of humour and sadness is what makes this novel so compelling.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

A family saga with a difference. Two families are linked by the breakup of the two marriages. We glimpse the effect of this on the children in childhood and adulthood. A complex structure has been chosen as the story shifts between past and present and from narrator to narrator, some more reliable than others. One of the joys of the book for me is this ever-changing structure so that we never know which part of their lives we are going to read about next or who would be featured in it. The tone of the book is cool. We are kept at a distance from the passions and traumas that occur. I found this an elegant techinique – unjudgemental – which left the reader to make up her own mind about events.

There were four children in one family and two in the other and because of the time shifts and place shifts I did have to look back to check who was who at times. I think this was because, apart from Franny who turns out to be the protagnonist, the other characters were not so finely drawn.

Another thing I enjoyed, probably because I’m a writer, it that book looked at who stories belong to. Franny’s husband “steals” Franny’s family history and when this is discovered it causes a francas. As writers we are always gathering ideas from other people’s lives and it really made me think about the morality of this.

A good read, intelligently and stylishly written about the effect of broken marriages on the families involved.

 

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. it’s setting in Paris in 1928 and 1934 and the protagonist, Lucia, the daughter of James Joyce, added to its appeal. As did the depiction of Samuel Beckett who she misguidedly falls in love with. The novel is based on a true story and must have involved a lot of research. Lucia’s dedication to dancing and Joyce’s over-protectiveness and selfishness lead to her breakdown. An impressive debut novel that made us feel close to Lucia and sympathetic toward her even when she’s at her most naive. Subtle, clever, ironic writing and story-telling. 

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

I admired the format and mood of this book because it didn’t follow the usual linear format of memoirs or autobiographies. I read it quite quickly because the style was fluid and easy to read.

Not always a fan of memoirs, I decided to read it because i like her novels, in particular Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. They were gripping novels, based on her unusual take on the character of Thomas Cromwell.

In this memoir Mantel flirts with the idea of family ghosts in a way that I found refreshing and illuminating.

 

Broken for You by Stephanie Kaller 

I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this book. I skipped through to the end. I found the characters and the plot unconvincing and the writing style was uneven and annoying.
Is this really a best seller?