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Austenland by Shannon Hale: Two Perspectives

First Review by Fran Tomlin

Austenland could be the epitome of “Chick-Lit”, with its title emblazoned on the cover in shiny pink lettering above an artist’s impression of our impossibly slim, pouty heroine gazing contemplatively at a Regency bonnet.  The cover review comes from Stephenie Meyer, author of Twilight, who assures us that this book is “adorable!”.  No pretensions to high literature here, then – instead we have a friendly, harmless indulgence from a market aimed almost exclusively at women.  Like bubble bath.  Or low-calorie chocolate products.

The plot centres on Jane, a New Yorker obsessed with Pride and Prejudice whose great-aunt bequeaths her a trip to an English resort specifically for Austen fanatics; a full-on Regency adventure complete with actors taking the roles of the romantic gentlemen leads.  Will Jane fall for the chiselled, gruff Mr Nobley?  Or perhaps be swayed by the more earthy charms of Martin, the gardener?  Will such total immersion therapy permit her to return home ready to discard the Darcy obsession and find real love with a real man?

For avid Chick-Lit readers, I am sure Austenland will not disappoint.  The writing style is simplistic but the plot bounces along good-naturedly enough, with sufficient twists ensuring we don’t know who the “right” man is until the very end, while the brief interludes at the start of each chapter detailing Jane’s previous disastrous boyfriends provide a faintly amusing diversion.  The Austen references are basic and do not provide the satisfaction that more carefully thought-out in-jokes might achieve, but then this book is not pretending to be anything more than mildly entertaining froth, so maybe that doesn’t matter.

However, for me this read was not a satisfying one.  Firstly, I know this is a genre which deals in romantic escapism and is therefore obliged to provide a “happy ever after”, but I cannot help feeling uneasy that in the twenty-first century there are still so many women devouring books with the central message that “contented spinsterhood was not an option” (180); that women need men to be complete.  For one glorious moment (around page 186), I thought the gutsy Jane would spurn both suitors and return to New York, proud and comfortably single.  Alas, no.  The final (frankly ludicrous) plot twist gives Jane her man and her happy ending.  And all is well.  Except, of course, for the attempted sexual assault on page 86, with Jane pinned against the wall by the drunken, leering “Sir John”.  Obviously, this being a family-friendly book, he gets no further than gripping her hands and leaning in lasciviously before our plucky heroine knees him in the groin and escapes, to laugh about the “joke” of being “propositioned by the drunken husband” (88).  “Sir John” is then sent away.  The incident is not mentioned again.  The way this is dealt with (or rather, not dealt with) implies that such behaviour is natural for drunken males, while all responsibility for the outcome lies with the intended victim.  Presumably Hale chooses not to take the attack seriously because doing so might detract from her romantic narrative, but then why include it at all?  Particularly for an “adorable” book aimed specifically at women, I find this not only confusing, but deeply unsettling.

Second Review by Rebecca Wray

2013 is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and earlier this year it was being celebrated with numerous events (Masters). It seems timely then that Shannon Hale’s novel should have been published in the UK this year to coincide with the anniversary. Austenland follows New Yorker Jane Hayes, a thirty-something woman who has a secret – she’s obsessed with Mr. Darcy, or rather Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejuduce. After discovering this secret, a wealthy aunt leaves Jane in her will an all-expenses paid three-week trip to Pembrook Park, England, a Regency-era resort which enables women to act out their ‘Jane Austen fantasies’. Of course Jane decides to go, treating the trip as ‘therapy’ with the aim of ‘putting to rest’ her Darcy obsession.

In-between chapters are the chronicles of Jane’s previous boyfriends. Over the course of the book, the reader learns how these ‘disastrous’ relationships drove Jane towards the novels of Jane Austen and helped develop her Darcy obsession. It’s suggested in the narrative of the text and by Jane’s best friend Molly that Jane’s relationships were all doomed to failure because she is holding men up to an ideal in the form of a fictional character. Over the course of the book Jane navigates her way through how she sees herself in relation to men. When she initially sets off on her trip she goes having ‘sworn men off’ for life because she believes she will never find her ‘perfect man’, her Mr Darcy. As her vacation progresses, Jane begins questioning what she wants out of the trip and how she feels about the gentlemen as she tries to work them out.

In Pembrook Park several male actors are paid to play Regency-era gentlemen and court the female guests. The character of Mr Nobley is clearly there to fit into the Mr Darcy role, appearing broody, stiff and restrained in comparison to the other gentlemen who throw themselves into courting the female guests. Mr Nobley and Jane go through relationship patterns in much the same way Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy do, right down to the witty banter about first impressions. As the story progresses Jane starts to lose herself into the fantasy of Pembrook Park and finds herself falling for Mr Nobley, but is he real? That is the question which plagues Jane and the reader throughout the novel. Who and what is real here? After all, Pembrook Park, is designed to cater to female fantasies and help women find a temporary, yet rewarding romance.

Upon entering Pembrook Park, guests are all stripped of not only their modern day accoutrements but also their name and in a sense their identity too. Guests are assigned new names and given a false background story tailored to fit into this Regency-era world. Similarly, the more permanent residents of the park are all actors with false names and playing various roles. The deeper Jane falls into this world, the more difficult it is for her to work out who is real and who is acting and even some of the guests are not quite what they seem. Jane not only develops interest in Mr Nobley but also the gardener Martin Jasper, whose earthy ‘realness’ stands out among the parade of refined and restrained gentlemen. But as is typical for chick lit heroines and a trope that can be found in the works of Austen (Wells), Jane ends up with the man who seemed least attractive and least likely to work out. What is interesting here is the journey rather than the outcome.

With Martin, Jane feels she is different to the other female guests seeking out Regency romance. Here, she sees herself as experiencing something ‘real’ and seeing through the games being played among the other couples in the park. Occasionally Jane expresses embarrassment at her knowledge and interest in Austen and feels concern that Martin sees her as just another guest who likes to play dress-up. This positioning of Jane as different to fellow female characters can be found in other aspects of the text. In Pembrook Park the female guests are cast into two groups by the proprietor Mrs Wattlesbrook. They are either financially ‘well off’ regular visitors or like Jane, they’re “not our usual type of guest” (25). This division by money creates a hierarchy of guests, placing Jane last and alone in even the procession to the dining room and reflects the ‘class without money’ trope found in not only chick-lit but again in Austen’s own novels (Harzewski).

Further, Austen fans appear to be divided up by Hale between those who have read the books (like Jane) and those who haven’t and are out to ‘bag a man’ (like Miss Charming). Jane appears desperate to set herself apart from this latter group and as noted earlier by her aunt, it is not her books that Jane was hiding from view in her apartment but her (Colin Firth) DVDs. This leaves the reader wondering what exactly Hale is trying to say about Austen fans. In the 2008, Bloomsbury USA edition of the book, a list of questions for discussion by reading groups is included. One of the suggested questions asks what Jane Austen herself would think of fans like Jane Hayes. While Pembrook Park is set up as a place of female fantasy, it takes only a scratch beneath the surface to reveal it is imperfect. Both Jane and Miss Charming are seen to become increasingly bored and frustrated with the Regency-era hierarchies, rules, manners and stifled conversations as they spend seemingly endless days of typical activities for women of the period such as sewing, playing whist and ‘taking a turn around the garden’, while the men are off drinking port and hunting. In the end, Jane sees herself as having ‘beaten’ Mrs Wattlesbrook and the Regency fantasy and unlike the other female guests, she leaves with the prospect of a new relationship unfolding.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 (1813). Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. “Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2006. 29-46. Print.

Masters, Tim. “Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen fans celebrate novel’s 200th anniversary”. BBC News, 25th January 2013. Web.  <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21078941&gt;

Wells, Juliette. “Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers and Literary History. Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2006. 47-70. Print.


Two Perspectives: Out of It by Selma Dabbagh

Find out what two reviewers thought of Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel Out of It in this double book review…

First Review by Dominic Davies

Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel, Out of It, is, as the title suggests, a powerfully spatial text that offers fascinating and nuanced insight into the complexities of the author’s own British-Palestinian identity, and the relationship between those two geopolitical areas. It is split into five parts, the titles of which orient the different sections around specific geographic areas: ‘Gazan Skies’, ‘London Views’, ‘Gulf Interiors’, ‘London Crowds’ and ‘The Gazan Sea’. These sections are organised so as to sandwich London, the metropolitan capital and Dabbagh’s current home, between the more overtly violent topographies of Gaza. It is this juxtaposition that, combined with the movement of the novel’s characters as they traverse these two geographical zones, forces a contrast between these two places, generating a productive friction that drives one of the overarching sociopolitical points of

Dabbagh’s ambitious first novel. A difficulty faced by any ‘post/colonial’ novelist, especially when writing in English for a global market (Out of It has been published in London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney—not Gaza), is the danger of commodifying the alien environment and its peoples for the still implicitly hierarchical and privileged readership of the Global North. But Dabbagh frames her representation of Gaza within a different referential paradigm, designed both to initiate this Western readership into the immediacy of Palestinian everyday life, whilst simultaneously deconstructing, in the tradition founded by the late Palestinian academic, Edward Said, the Orientalist stereotypes and assumptions that those readers might bring to it.

Through her superimposition of the terror and violence of the streets of Gaza onto the more mundane geographies of London’s cityscape, Dabbagh is not only engaged in a project of anti-Orientalist deconstruction. The novel’s topographical overlaying also performs a productive function, working to initiate a sense of cross-border political responsibility between the two geographical spaces that she herself, and the novel’s characters, inhabit. As an unidentified narratorial voice comments, at the climax of a powerful central chapter that is just two pages in length:

The chatterers that filled the streets [of London] became complicit with each missile that blasted the town [in Gaza], each sheet-wrapped body thrown into a mass grave, each screaming child outside a demolished home. (186)

The necessity of inserting the place-names into this quotation simply to makes sense of it is symptomatic of the geographical slippage at work throughout the novel. It is through this contrasting process that Dabbagh’s novel forces, indeed forges, a connection between the banality of the apparently depoliticized everyday life of London’s citizens and the violent horrors faced by the population of Gaza. This connection is not rooted in an historically informed guilt, though of course this would be legitimate. Instead, Dabbagh works these processes out through the distinctly personal prism of her characters, drawing on the movement between individual stories and collective responsibilities in a way that only the extended narrative explorations of the novel form allow. What results is a complex and fascinating critique of those who ignore the injustice of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, alongside a deconstruction and reevaluation of notoriously vehement non-Palestinian activists who have taken up the cause.

Whilst unpicking these pre-existing social nuances, Dabbagh’s first novel also offers some refreshingly original perspectives. Though engaged in a careful project of politicization, she simultaneously works to absolve her Palestinian characters of their political responsibility. The novel’s protagonists struggle with conflicting threads of obligation towards, and rejection of, the Palestinian cause as a defining aspect of both their lives and identities. Dabbagh’s exploration of these multiple dimensions of Palestinian life reclaims the realm of the private: those arenas of individual and family life that are not defined by political circumstance, so taken for granted in a country like Britain, so rare and difficult to come by in Palestine. After all, nestled at the heart of those geographically-oriented sections, and of the novel as a whole, is ‘Gulf Interiors’. It is through its evocation of these personal interiors, displaced spatially and symbolically onto domestic interiors—those parts of the city and of people’s lives not seen from the street, unrepresented in the media—that the novel is able to deconstruct stereotypes and assumptions that have been attached to Palestine in the Global North, whilst demanding a new engagement with the politics of occupation and dispossession on both individual, and global, levels.

Second Review by Sophia Brown

Gaza. The Second Intifada has just begun, and so begins Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel. The Mujahed family house stands amidst the detritus of other people’s destroyed homes, in an ‘elephants’ graveyard of arched steel and clumps of concrete’ (21): a visual reminder of the family’s good fortune, but also of the sheer fragility of life in what is often described by global media as the world’s largest prison.

Sabri is the eldest of three siblings. Wheelchair-bound, following a horrific attack that claimed his wife and child, he now seeks an escape from grief by writing the living history of his country: ‘Documenting destruction. Chronicling chaos’ (36). His younger brother Rashid volunteers for a local NGO but thinks only of escape – the first instance of the novel’s titular statement. To be out of it, ‘[r]ight the hell out of there’ (5), is his only desire. Their sister, Iman, is a school teacher as well as part of a women’s committee working in Gaza, but finds that her education in Switzerland precludes her from being able to voice an opinion – ‘“you’ve just turned up here…you’re new to this”’ (6) is the rejoinder to any point she wishes to raise. The changing political climate and the rise of religiosity stifle Iman’s attempts at belonging to a society she has been kept separate from. She notes wryly that ‘[n]o one joked about not fasting in Ramadan any more’ (11) and wonders how she will ever find her own relevance within the Palestinian struggle.

Their father, a prominent member of the PLO before turning his back on political involvement and moving to the Gulf, is resolutely anti-Islamic and cannot comprehend the Palestinians’ need for religion. After all, ‘God had hardly smiled on them this far’ (162). Jaded by the struggle for independence and yet nostalgic about his own capabilities as a young man, he disparages the generation that his children belong to. ‘They might at best be capable of revolt, but that in itself did not make them capable of revolution’ (162). It is Dabbagh’s exploration of this generation and its troubled inheritance of a fierce, ongoing struggle that drives the novel. Both Iman and Rashid end up in London, ‘out of it’, albeit temporarily. Iman observes those around her and is unsettled by their freedom to think about things other than occupation and is ‘fascinated by the directions that the mind’s interests took when no longer consumed by fear’ (185-6). This is London to her, its ‘streets delirious with inanities’ (186). Rashid seeks solace in these inanities, although it turns out to be a misplaced solace. He sees cause for celebration in how inwardly focused and preoccupied everyone seems to him, asking, ‘Isn’t that how it’s meant to be? Not to care about politics?’ (187).

What gives Dabbagh’s novel its depth and texture are the details that root us unmistakably in the occupied territories. There is the description of the rucksack of a young girl killed during an airstrike, at once ubiquitous and horribly sad. There is the reception that greets Iman on her return from London, when she is asked not about her long period of absence but only about how she fared at the border. There is Rashid’s sense of foreboding, colouring his daily life, a foreboding he does not recognise as a default Palestinian setting until he too returns to Gaza. And there is the photograph of their mother with its revelation of a hidden political identity, finally providing Iman with the heritage she so desperately craves in order to assert herself, both as a Palestinian and as a woman.

The Israeli journalist Amira Hass has commented: ‘To me, Gaza embodies the entire saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it represents the central contradiction of the State of Israel – democracy for some, dispossession for others; it is our exposed nerve.’ (7). Dabbagh explores what this exposed nerve means to those for whom it is a daily reality. That she does so with such energy, perception and even humour is testament to her broadness of vision, and places Out of It in the growing library of smart and revealing narratives about the Palestinian occupation.

Works cited:

Amira Hass – Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege (London: Penguin, 1999). Trans Elana Wesley and Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta

The Conversationist by Nadine Gordimer

Review by Nagihan Haliloğlu

In his ‘On Poetry’ Glyn Maxwell informs us that when asked what their favourite landscape is, ‘the children of today, from anywhere on earth’ choose the picture of a savannah, ‘choose it over all other’. Whatever these children are looking at, they are not looking at the swampy vlei on the cover of the Bloomsbury edition of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conversationist. We are not in the savannah that – judging by these children- our ancestral memory seems to be drawing us to. Gordimer’s setting is described as being continuously ravaged by the elements and humans alike- fires, floods and mining. According to Maxwell’s psychologists, one of the reasons the savannah seems more attractive to the human race is that it affords open space and prepares one mentally for the hunt. But even the pleasure of the possible chase is chastened in Gordimer’s account of the land, with the conservationist impulse of Mehring, the anti-hero, the conversationist of the title.

After a three hundred page narrative of shifting tenses and focalizers, in which we are shown, with tired metaphors, time and again, that the farm house owning white Mehring is out of tune with the rhythms of the land, while the black people that work for him will be there long after he’s gone, (with the refrain ‘No one will remember where you are buried’, said once by his British leftist lover, and remembered many more times), there is a metafictional moment in which Gordimer lets us in on the mystery of what has been going on in the passages in which it is not clear whether conversations of the conversationist have actually happened, or whether they are projections in Mehring’s mind:” It may sound crazy- No, put it another way. A funny thing- You don’t have to be a believer in a lot of superstition and nonsense- there’s a difference between thinking to oneself and thinking as a form of conversation, even if there are no answers.”

One of these thinking-as-conversation passages is a phone call that may or may not have happened with his ex-wife: ‘– It’s not Terry who wants to speak to you. I do. – That’s also not impossible at this juncture’, a conversation whose reality is further undermined with ‘It would be crazy to suppose the call might even have been you, but not entirely inconceivable. The sort of thing you would do’. Gordimer believes that this is all within the purview of stream of consciousness, which she conveys with a liberal helping of em dashes. From the very beginning Gordimer tests the age-old belief that dashes reflect fragmented consciousness and view of the world, however, the effectiveness of this stylistic boon is severely tested with excessive usage.

Once one is able to get over the hurdles of (late-)style, Gordimer’s tale is one that nicely reconstructs race and gender politics in South Africa in the apartheid era. Through conversations, Gordimer gives expositions of the various political positions held by the whites, the Boers (who are shown to make a distinctly separate category) and the blacks. The Boer-Anglosaxon divide provides the background for the last confrontation of the novel, in which Mehring feels he has been set up by a Boer girl to be caught in flagrante by the Boer vice squad -another subplot the narrative does not fully unravel.

However the scene does suggest that the interesting foil for Mehring’s self-absorbed white industrialist is the village Boers and not the blacks who, as we are ‘subtly’ told time and again, will inherit everything one day. Mehring is at once repelled and attracted by his Boer neigbours’ life style, described very well in one early scene. He is patronizingly touched when de Beer talks about ‘you people’ assuming that he must have a family with him at the farm house for ‘they cannot conceive of a man without a family of some sort’. When they come to visit him Mehring muses about the children and the womenfolk: ‘She’s a beautiful child as their children often are- where do they get them from?- and she’ll grow up- what do they do to them?- the same sort of vacant turnip as the mother.’ And ‘the elder girl, motherly towards smaller ones as only black or Afrikaans children are’ and without further exposition Gordimer is able to relay the racially inflected class-consciousness of the South African elite.

At other times the narrative exposes us to various discourses without making quite clear where they come from, events and their causes are also more suggested than told. Paragraphs go on for a bit before we know whose perspective we are getting, and the referents of the various ‘he’s are discovered several pages later. One thing this does is to add discursively to the unstable and unsafe physical environment that Gordimer has been depicting from the start. Despite the adulterating effect of the supposedly African local narratives that start off each chapter as some guiding narrative into the plot, the veld and vlei come off as rather difficult and unwelcoming places that hide unwelcome truths. While on the narrative level the exercise of layering the uncanny might have gone too far, some of the palimpsests Gordimer constructs are fundamental elements of the crafty uneasiness conveyed by the novel.

When one of the farm hands is attacked in the night in a pasture, rumour grows quickly that there is ‘something down there’, a spirit. The text has no proof of the existence of the spirit, but it has told the reader several pages earlier that there is indeed a dead body abandoned there somewhere. In a way, by providing only a few moments of lucidity and fewer clear shots of evidence of crime, Gordimer tries to work through suggestion rather than telling, leaving it to our imagination the depths and palimpsests of crimes and violations that the characters and the country she depicts have to contend with.

Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of Love and War by Janine Di Giovanni,

Review by Donna Mitchell

Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of Love and War (2011) recounts some of the most significant events in the personal life of acclaimed war correspondent and author, Janine Di Giovanni, whose career spans across three decades. Her ability to highlight forgotten warfare zones and to depict ‘the human cost of war’ has earned her a reputation as one of the most established reporters of our generation. This memoir gives the reader a glimpse into the time she has spent in various warravaged cities, but functions mainly as a reflection on events in her own life during this time. Central to its narrative is the love story between Janine and fellow reporter, Bruno, whose first encounter in the city of Sarajevo leads to the development of a relationship that manages to survive daily life on the front line as well as countless breakups, three miscarriages, and the stress and separation that their jobs repeatedly demand from them.

Years later, the birth of their son, Luca, sees the beginning of a new chapter as they relocate to settle in France. Despite leaving the strains of war behind, their attempt to create a successful home life in Paris is prevented by the culture shock of experiencing mundane life in the safety of a peaceful country. The absence of warfare allows them to finally gain perspective on the personal trauma that they have both suffered throughout the many wars they have witnessed. Janine struggles with the challenge of first-time motherhood while baring witness to the emergence of Bruno’s personal demons in the form of post-traumatic stress and alcoholism. The overwhelming combination of these issues leads to the eventual dissolution of their fragile marriage.

The narrative mainly deals with Janine’s personal understanding of love and loss as she reflects on the many changes in her life and reminisces about past times with Bruno. It details her struggle to have a successful pregnancy and the dilemmas of first-time motherhood, as well as the challenge of creating a new home in a foreign land. The importance of female support during these difficult times is emphasised by her admission that Luca’s birth strengthens the bond between her and her own mother, and tells how it is only with the help of her mother-in-law that she finally settles into French life and culture.

Overall, it is a beautifully written book that deals with its sensitive subject matter in an open and honest manner. Her ability to share the darkest  toments of her personal struggles with the reader left me still thinking about her words long after I had read the last page. My only criticism is the slightly problematic time sequence, as the flow of the narrative is often interrupted by flashbacks and short accounts of her various friendships with soldiers and native people, which can be difficult to follow at times. However, this is a minor fault in an otherwise gripping and thought-provoking account of a complex woman’s determination to find happiness in life despite all that she has seen on the front line.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

Review by Helen Taylor

Set in late nineteenth century colonial South Africa, Jennifer McVeigh’s novel follows Frances Irvine through a series of difficult events after the death of her father. Whilst the term ‘coming of age’ might be considered a bit passé, this narrative truly does follow Frances through her trials and tribulations to a new maturity.

McVeigh paints an evocative scene. Her attention to detail is excellent, and neither the historical setting (both her Acknowledgements and the inside covers show the extent of her research) nor the description-explanations of life in South Africa feel laboured. The societal rules governing a woman’s life and actions are true to period: every event leading up to Frances’ emigration to South Africa – and what she experiences because of it – feels accurate without being contrived. The drama of the voyage and its consequences in South Africa is believable, for me, precisely because McVeigh has been so careful elsewhere. For example, Frances’ emigration comes because, in 1880, a woman must have the support of a man – her father dies, her uncle won’t have her, she has been brought up as a lady but lacks funds to stay in Society… Frances silently despises Dr. Matthews’ ‘possessiveness’ (55), but ultimately marrying him is the best option available to her.

Life on the ship is also well constructed, considering the second class, as opposed to first or steerage, and what this placement means for these women. Of course, the drama of the plot requires Frances to venture into the world of the first class passengers, but here too societal norms are observed and subverted by McVeigh only enough to be believable – there is a nineteenth century blanking (45-7), she relishes the freedom of not having a chaperone (65), and even the dinner conversation about the ‘redundancy’ of middle class women lacks any radical intent (82-4). In South Africa, Frances struggles, first in the veldt and then in a rough diamond mining town, unable to work out how to act or what her place is in this new society, and it is here that her trials truly begin.

I enjoyed the book immensely, and – whilst not wishing to give away major aspects of plot – must mention, finally, the moment which best illustrates McVeigh’s crafting of the overarching narrative and the quality of the writing. Because the third person angle includes Frances’ thoughts, the reader always perceives events from her point of view – usually with no reason to doubt her. Thus, the moment at which Frances realises her mistakes is the same moment we do too. I felt that McVeigh has deliberately, and very effectively, manipulated my interpretations so that I too felt monumentally stupid and naive for believing what I had for the bulk of the book. And that is what makes this book so compelling. It is a simply a story about a woman faced with complicated problems, but, crucially, a woman true to the period, dealing with life in the only ways she can.

Underground Time by Delphine De Vigan

Review by Allison Slegenthaler

The central problem with Underground Time, Delphine de Vigan’s 2009 novel, is that it is trying to be too many things at once. Is it a philosophical meditation on isolation? A romance? An examination of bullying in the workplace? All these options remain on the table for the duration, and the book suffers for its lack of commitment.

Underground Time follows two Parisians through a single day, the twentieth of May: Mathilde, a businesswoman, and Thibault, a paramedic. Both are deeply unhappy with their lives, dragged along by the bustle of modern life and the loneliness of the city they inhabit. Much of the book is spent taking a long, slow path through the minds of Mathilde and Thibault, revisiting memories which recall better, more connected times in their lives. Thibault is a bachelor, Mathilde a widow, and essentially they are loners. No friends are mentioned, no meaningful adult relationships endure – Thibault’s lover, the distant Lila, is gone within the first thirty pages, and Mathilde’s most enduring connections are to her young sons.

At the same time, there’s a constant thread running through both stories implying that today, the twentieth of May, is the day both Mathilde and Thibault will meet the one person who can fix their lives forever. It’s not much of a leap on the reader’s part to see that we’re supposed to want them to get together by the end, but unfortunately this facet of the plot feels artificially tacked on. The real thrust of Underground Time, and the aspect of it worth focussing on, hinges on how these two people, who live very different lives with distinct concerns and motivations, will find their ways out of the holes they’ve landed in.

Mathilde’s story is really what holds the narrative together: it’s Gaslight updated for the boardroom, and the slow lurch towards the climax is the best writing de Vigan offers (she has an irritating habit of peppering her writing with incomplete sentences, breaking up the flow). Jacques, Mathilde’s boss, is slowly removing all traces of Mathilde’s presence from their office while pretending nothing is wrong, and she struggles to understand his motivations and to re-assert herself as a meaningful contributor to her workplace.

Thibault’s half of the book – which chronicles the various emergency calls he responds to during the day, visiting other lonely and desperate people in Paris – is not really as arresting or salient at Mathilde’s, especially (I suspect) for anyone interested in CWWS. I would have preferred to have the entirety of Underground Time devoted to Mathilde, especially as Thibault turns out to be, essentially, a cipher. Underground Time never really stops being about Mathilde, even when she’s absent from the page, and the words spent away from her feel wasted. If anything, the device that keeps threatening to bring Mathilde and Thibault together detracts from rather than enhances the plot, and any nods to romance only feel perfunctory.

Underground Time has the germ of a good novel in it, but unfortunately that germ didn’t quite develop the way it might have. Read it for Mathilde’s extraordinary poise under pressure; skip the rest.

Redemption Song: Gloria by Kerry Young

Review by Kathryn Smoraczewska

Kerry’ Young’s Gloria (2013) is a confident second novel. From the author of Pao (2011) comes the interlinked story of Gloria Campbell, a young, poor black women growing up in mid-twentieth century Jamaica. Her story begins in 1938 when dramatic events in her rural hometown force her to flee to Kingston with her younger sister. Here she struggles to build a life for herself and to protect those that she cares about from the injustices of poverty. The narrative winds its way through 34 years of ups and downs, for both protagonist and nation.

gloria youngYoung’s prose is compelling; narrated from Gloria’s perspective in present-tense Jamaican patois, its striking rhythm allows the reader to hear the idiosyncrasies of each finely-drawn character’s speech patterns. As Gloria’s confidence grows throughout the course of the novel, so too does the articulacy of her narration. This effect is subtle where it could have been laboured in the hands of a clumsier writer, and it really allows the reader to get under the protagonist’s skin and grow empathetically with her. Gloria is a well- rounded character, never idealised by the author, but sympathetic in her imperfection. The supporting cast are evoked equally powerfully, and although the majority are criminals of one stripe or another, for the most part the reader is on their side, which is vital to retaining interest in the strongly character-driven plot.

Young claims that her intention was to bring different aspects of Jamaica to the western reader’s attention, by focusing on marginalised communities and characters. This is without doubt achieved, and the author strongly engages with issues of identity, class and gender, demonstrating how these different variables impact on the characters’ diverse experiences whilst contextualising her narrative in socio-historical terms. This approach is interesting, particularly when Young looks outside Jamaica, and focuses on Cuba as a counterpoint.However, the text never quite achieves the breadth of scope one expects of a historical novel, and the political history is uneven and episodic rather than sustained and well-integrated into the narrative. Nonetheless, from a feminist perspective, the author’s technique is largely successful; her storytelling frequently results in an honest and compassionate appraisal of the challenges faced by women of different backgrounds – sexual violence, prostitution and motherhood are all addressed with respectful and controlled understatement.

Unfortunately, at other points it seems as though the author has a checklist of sexual and gender based oppression that she is trying to race through by the end of the book. The end result is that some issues are paid lip service, smacking of tokenism, and her impassioned plea for the improvement of women’s lives is not delivered as powerfully to the reader as it might have been. Indeed, the fact that the most explicit exposition of how the sex/gender system harms women comes from one of the male characters is particularly problematic – doubtless Young’s intention was good, but the decision to put this key soliloquy in a man’s mouth comes across as condescending, not to mention the fact that it prevents her otherwise strong female lead from realising what the events of her own life should have made abundantly clear. Instead, Gloria is forced into the position of naive pupil, at the point in the narrative when the author should be celebrating her independence, intelligence and strength.

Overall Young’s novel shows promise, and we can doubtless look forward to her building on her successes in her future work.

Dichotomy in the Young Adult Consumer Market: Reading Beyond the Packaging of Kathy Reichs’ Virals

The release of Kathy Reichs’ Virals was permeated with much controversy. Review sites
were awash with disappointment that it lacked the realistic ‘grit’ of many contemporary
detective novels, denigrating it as ‘Famous Five’ fiction. The debate surrounding the novel’s
apparent ‘quality’ was due entirely to readers’ violated expectations of the content after
Virals was publicised and packaged less as a Young Adult detective thriller and instead
as a continuation of Reichs’ crime novels, indeed trading on the reputation of her ‘Bones’
creation. It belied the content which apparently relied on well-used, genre-bound narrative
and character devices from children’s literature.

Despite multitudinous comparisons of Virals to The Famous Five, a more accurate frame
of reference is the Scooby Doo phenomenon: from the auburn-haired ‘Daphne’ in Tory
Brennan to the male-embodied ‘Velma’ in the geeky, technologically adept Shelton, Reichs’
teenagers exhibit all the stereotypical facets of the 1970s cartoon, and equally its more
recent protagonists who exhibit renegotiated gender boundaries. Indeed, to actually be
called ‘meddlers’ completes this teenage group’s identification with, and subsuming of, the
Scooby-Doo ideology which dictates revealing of the villain(s) and acknowledgement that
everything was never as bad as appearances would have us believe. Yet it is precisely this
type of genre-inherited stereotyping which Reichs successfully manipulates here.

These unwitting heroes, whose transmogrification from merely Scooby-Doo detectives
into comic-book superheroes with wolf powers, provide a reassessment of cultural mores
which posit adults as authoritarian truth-tellers and the wealthy as powerful. The teenagers’
contraction of the mutated Parvo Virus is unlike the interstellar disaster which alters the
biology of the Fantastic Four, or the inherited mutations of the X-Men. This is, instead,
an avoidable catastrophe caused by devious, illegal, upper-class adult profit-making and
misguided scientific principles, which warns of the potential dangers of genetic science and
also opens up the debate on animal testing. Equally, their discoveries of ill-advised, immoral
and illegal adult life-choices equip them to understand that the adult world is a confused and
perverse place to be.

It is not just the teenagers’ new-found powers but their very human trait of empathising
with, and wanting justice for, another teenager which sets them apart from the superficial
young adults with whom they are forced to go to school and for whom the inheritance and
perpetuation of class image and money is the root of their criminalisation and physical and
mental destruction. In the heroes’ rights of passage from intelligent yet poor scholarship
students to accomplished superhuman detectives, they embrace the challenges of social
integration and cultural marginalisation which affect so many people globally. Growing into
the role of detective, clearly, means acquiring the experiences to recognise and deal with the
problems which affect us throughout life and acknowledging that crime, and the motivation
behind it, is every bit as bad as it appears.

Ultimately, Virals exemplifies how Young Adult fiction can not only encompass adventure,
suspend disbelief and ‘speak to’ its readers, but that it is capable of challenging adult societal
expectations and values. Maybe the adult packaging which caused such derision was not so
inappropriate after all.

By Claire Cowling, University of Hull