Monday, 19 March 2012

'Gillespie and I' by Jane Harris

“It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie.  Who, if not me, was dealt this hand?  Indeed, one might say, who is left to tell the tale?”

So begins Gillespie and I, the Orange Prize long-listed second novel by Jane Harris.  Set, by turns, in 1880s Glasgow and 1930s London, the story is narrated by the elderly Harriet Baxter.  Now almost in her 80s, Harriet has decided to record for posterity the story of her close, if short-lived, friendship with the talented Scottish artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family.

The narrator first encounters the Gillespies during the 1888 International Glasgow Exhibition, at a time when Ned‘s talents are slowly gaining recognition in the elitist Glaswegian art world.  Indeed, after years of struggling to make a name for himself, it seems he is finally on the cusp of a professional break-through. And yet, in just a few short years, the once-loving and close-knit Gillespie family has been torn apart, Ned has taken his own life and his artistic legacy destroyed.  What could have happened in the intervening years to cause such cataclysmic destruction?  It is this question that Harriet sets about answering in this tragic tale of parental love and neglect, wasted devotion and obsession.

From the outset, Harris skilfully conjures an unsettling and insidious sense of foreboding – like a cat toying with her prey, she deftly weaves a plot so complex and unnerving that the reader is left discombobulated, perplexed, unbalanced and disturbed.  Indeed, the only thing one is sure of is that nothing is as it seems in this rather brilliant novel.  Reading this book is akin to the slightly panicked feeling one has when stumbling through a hall of mirrors – in each disorienting image we catch glimpses of our actual reflection, but thanks to certain faults, distortions or biases in the glass, the truth remains tantalizingly out of reach …

Masterfully written, this is a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.  Not to be missed!

'Gillespie and I' is published by Faber and Faber.
This year's Orange Prize short list will be announced on 17 April, and the winner will be unveiled 30 May.  For more information, see

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

'How To Be A Woman' by Caitlin Moran

Let me start by saying I was really looking forward to this book. I'm a fan of Caitlin Moran's columns in Saturday's Times and the book itself, which has been billed as a feminist manifesto to rival Germaine Greeer's The Female Eunuch, has been widely popular (in the UK at least).  It has garnered innumerable 5* reviews in the mainstream press and has even won the Galaxy Book of the Year Award last year.  With all this positive buzz, this was going to be one great reading experience, right?

Wrong!  I'm currently half-way through, and struggling to make it to the end.  Although I have only 150 pages to go, they are dragging out before me like a yawning abyss. These last pages are as insurmountable as Everest would be, if I was ever crazy enough to try to climb it - indeed, 800 pages of War and Peace would be preferable to 150 pages of How To Be A Woman.

The main problem with this book lies in the author's rather unique style.  Although she is undoubtedly a talented and funny writer, her reliance on capital letters and endless exclamation marks is extremely annoying - if not downright off-putting.  Any writer worth their salt will tell you that the words on the page should be sufficient to get the point across, while a single exclamation mark, and perhaps the odd italic, is all that is needed to add emphasis.  Overuse of capitals makes the writer come across as belligerent and, in Moran's case, slightly mad.  More often than not, while reading this book, I found myself thinking 'STOP SHOUTING AT ME, YOU LUNATIC!! JUST CALM THE HELL DOWN!!!!'  And as such, any point she was trying to make was simply lost on me.

Another issue I have with this book it's is crudeness.  Note to the author - it is not necessary to mention the c-word and f-word on every other page to prove your feminist credentials.  We are no longer in the 1970s - you do not have to resort to shock tactics to drive home your feministic point. In fact, maybe if you made an effort to drag yourself out of the gutter occasionally, your argument may be better received.  Also, as a reader, I have no desire to be subjected to an entire chapter devoted to your quest to find a suitable name for your vagina and that of your new-born daughter.

And don't get me started on the Twitter-isms and abbreviations she has incorporated into the text.  Is it too much to expect to read actual words in a book?  Surely it isn't beyond the realms of reasonableness to expect a writer to type 'to be honest' instead of 'tbh'??  Whether this is laziness or just an ill-advised affectation is unclear, but coupled with the fact that the text is littered with spelling and grammatical errors, it gives the impression that the book was nothing more than a sloppy rush-job, a cynical and hurried attempt to capitalise on the author's current popularity as a newspaper columnist. 

On that note, I'd advise anyone considering buying this book to stick instead to her journalistic ramblings - because, if How To Be A Woman proves anything at all, it is the fact that Ms Moran's writing is bearable only in very small doses.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fantastic Mr Dahl

The name Roald Dahl is one that enjoys instant recognition. The author’s phenomenal success as a writer of children’s books has meant that Dahl has become a household name the world over. His unique ability to communicate with children through fantastical tales, and his capacity to bring to life such memorable and enduring characters as Willy Wonka, the BFG and Fantastic Mr Fox, has meant that Roald Dahl’s stories have become indelibly etched on the psyche of generations of children. Beloved by both adults and children alike, Roald Dahl’s position as revered children’s author is assured.

However, it seems Dahl’s immense success as a writer has somewhat skewed our perception of this enigmatic man – most of his fans are quite unaware of the eventful and highly unconventional life he led prior to his late-flowering career as a children’s author. It is a situation that Donald Sturrock sets out to rectify in his authorised biography, aptly titled Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl.

Sturrock, in a manner reminiscent of his subject, weaves a compelling narrative, tracing Dahl’s life story from his privileged childhood in Wales, under the gaze of his indomitable Norwegian mother, to his ill-fated career as a WW2 fighter pilot and his subsequent secondment to America as a wartime diplomat and spy. As Dahl stumbles from one unlikely career-path to the next, the reader marvels at his ability to be in the right place at the right time. Opportunities seem to fall into his lap, and soon he is drawn into a glamorous social circle, striking up friendships with such political and literary heavyweights as Franklin D Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway and embarking on liaisons with numerous society beauties before his eventual marriage to Hollywood star, Patricia Neal.


It soon becomes apparent, however, that fortune did not continue to favour Roald Dahl. In fact, one is struck by a sense that he lived a life of two halves. After his sojourn in America, Dahl returned to England and took up his writing career in earnest. It was during this time that Dahl was stuck by a succession of family tragedies, namely the death of his beloved daughter Olivia, the car accident which left his infant son brain damaged and finally the stroke which almost killed his wife. These calamities left Dahl with a distinct feeling that a dark cloud hung over his family – and this feeling of impending calamity never quite left him. Add to this the constant pain he suffered as a result of a wartime plane crash, his struggle to gain acceptance among the British literary establishment, and the clandestine love affair which eventually tore his family apart, the reader is left in no doubt that the life of Roald Dahl was no fairytale.

Although Sturrock is a sympathetic biographer, he does not shy away from his subject’s much-documented dark side. This is a warts-and-all account of a man who, while celebrated for his genius, was also irascible, argumentative, contradictory and narcissistic. Storyteller is thoughtful, insightful, well-balanced … and an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in the life and work of this complex, multi-faceted and multi-talented man.

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock is published by HarperCollins and is out in hardback now. (Paperback due in Sept 2011).

Monday, 5 March 2012

Picasso & Modern British Art

On the face of it, the concept – an exhibition which examines Britain’s late-flowering appreciation of the genius of Pablo Picasso, along with his influence on a generation of home-grown artists – is appealing. Certainly, if the pre-publicity is to be believed, Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain ranks as one of this season’s must-see shows.

But, with a crowded cultural calendar, (the blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci display at the National Gallery has just closed, while retrospectives of works by the recently-deceased Lucien Freud and the still-very-much-alive David Hockney are drawing large crowds to the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy respectively), does this particular exposition warrant our attention?
The Three Dancers (1925)

The answer is, of course, yes – in my view, any exhibition featuring even one piece by Picasso is worth the entry fee.  And there are quite a few well-known masterpieces featured in this display (including The Three Dancers (1925) and Weeping Woman (1937)), as well as works by the likes of Duncan Grant, Ben Nicholson and Wyndham Lewis – all of whom were greatly inspired by the Spanish master.

Therein, however, lies the exhibition’s fatal flaw – once inside the gallery space, even a cursory glance at the pieces on display leads one to question the wisdom of showing works by the lesser mortals of the British art world alongside the grand master of modernism.

The Tub by Duncan Grant
To put it quite simply, although talented painters in their own right, the offerings of the British contingent just do not stack up to the trailblazing genius of Picasso.  Indeed, with the exception of some ground-breaking pieces by Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland, almost all the British artworks on display appear to be nothing more than cheap imitations of the original. Which, of course, they were – there are not many painters in the world who could ever hope to reach the standard set by some of Picasso’s best work.
But, did we really need an exhibition to highlight this fact?  Wouldn’t it have been better to leave well enough alone, to allow the public to appreciate the talent of our British artists, without throwing their efforts into harsh relief by showing them alongside the glorious virtuosity of Pablo Picasso?

Indeed, one wonders how the artists themselves would have felt about being included in a show alongside the Spanish maestro - I can only imagine that Grant, Nicholson et al would not have been best pleased.
Picasso & Modern British Art
Until July 15 at Tate Britain
Tickets: £14, Concessions £12.20, Free to Tate Members

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Charlotte Brontë’s Ingratitude

Amateur bookworms and literary scholars alike have been rejoicing at the news that a long-forgotten and scarcely-read short story by the 19th century novelist, Charlotte Brontë, is about to be published for the first time by the London Review of Books.

Until its recent accidental discovery, the composition (written in imperfect French, replete with misspellings and grammatical errors) has been languishing, unnoticed, in the dusty vaults of a Belgian museum for nigh-on 100 years.

Entitled L’Ingratitude, the story is dated 16th March 1842, and as such is thought to be the first piece of homework undertaken by the budding author during her educational sojourn in Belgium - where she, along with her sister Emily, took French lessons from their tutor, Constantin Heger.

Indeed, the Heger connection makes this piece all the more interesting to Brontë fans, many of whom would be aware that the writer fell deeply in love with her teacher over the course of her stay in Belgium. 

Unfortunately for Charlotte, Heger was a happily married man, and her love therefore went unrequited.  Her affections were not entirely wasted, however – she would go on to use Heger as the inspiration for a character in her 1853 novel, Villette.

The story is available to read, in both French and English, on the LRB website: