Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

Courtesy Allen & Unwin
Foal's bread is the second novel by Gillian Mears that we've read in our group. The first was her first novel, The mint lawn, which those of us around back then remember enjoying (though we don't remember the details). We were not sorry we decided to read this, her third novel and first after 16 years, because we had a humdinger of a discussion! Such a humdinger, in fact, that I barely know where to start.

Let's start with the plot. The novel tells the story of the extended Nancarrow family from around 1926 to the early 21st century, though most of it takes place in the 1940s-1940s, tough years. It's set in the area Mears knows best, the dairy country of northeast New South Wales, around Grafton. The main characters are Noey, and the man Roley whom she marries. As well as being dairying people, they are horse people, high-jumpers in fact, and they have a dream - to establish their own high-jumping team to take around the show circuit. The story chronicles what happens to this dream as life's vicissitudes - some natural, some human, in origin - confront them. Some of the vicissitudes faced in this book include incest, lightning strikes, bearing a disabled child, and war.

So, what made it a great discussion? Particularly since most people liked it, and some loved it? Well, despite the general approval, there were queries and concerns. And there were those who didn't like it - was it "those" or just one? But she or they wasn't/weren't totally negative. In other words, this is a great book for readers to get their discussion teeth into!

First the positives. We liked the characterisation. We thought she controlled the story well ensuring that the drama didn't amok into overblown emotions. We liked her careful plotting, and the way she set up situations through parallels - two incest stories, two spaying stories, for example. We appreciated the way she conveyed complicated emotions, such as those of Noey for her incestuous Uncle Nip. We liked her evocation of the place and period, and the way she so viscerally conveyed the show jumping scene and the passions it engendered in those who took part. Overall, we felt she was a convincing, immersing writer.

What, then, about the negatives? Well, as you'd expect there was less consensus here. Some found the language/style problematic in places, pointing to long sentences which piled image upon image without giving the reader a chance to breathe. Others didn't notice such sentences! Some found the dialogue challenging and wondered whether it was true to the people of the period. Others felt it was authentic or, at least, evocative enough to feel authentic. Some felt she overused foreshadowing, foreboding. Others felt that she controlled this well, sometimes implying events that didn't eventuate such as an extramarital affair. Some felt the ending - particularly the "add-on" coda - was a little disappointing, while others thought it was very effective. And so the discussion raged (politely of course!) ...

However, rather than go on to detail all the specific things we picked up, I'll end on the discussion the novel sparked at the end of the night. It was about shame. Where does shame come from? What creates it? One member suggested that shame continues to be a strong emotion in rural communities. There are many feelings of shame in this book, but I'll just give a few examples. Roley feels shame about his illness. It prevents his going to war (compounding his shame), affects the achievement of their dream, hurts their marriage. Noey carries shame about her illegitimately born baby from a pre-marriage incestuous relationship. Shame, we discussed, is closely related to failure and guilt but is often not "rational". It is often related to not doing or being able to do the things society expects, the things that make for social cohesion. Things like marry and have children (which Roley's sisters don't do), go to war with your mates, and so on. If we all renege on these expectations, society could fall apart. But why is that when, through no fault of one's own a person can't meet society's expectations, they feel such shame? Shame and guilt ... nature or nurture?

Well, I think that's enough, so I'll close on one parting question. Gothic or elegiac? How would you describe this novel?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice

Selection of members' editions including iPad and Kindle 
In 1905 William James Dawson wrote, in a book titled Makers of English fiction, that Jane Austen was born into a "world of unredeemed dulness. Everything around her was prim and trim and proper", and

Yet it was from this material that Jane Austen has contrived to extract stories which have survived for a century and seem likely to endure quite unprophesied generations. (Ch. IV, Jane Austen, and the Novel of Social Comedy)

How right he was ... because here we were in January 2012 discussing, yes, Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice.

Eleven members turned up for our first meeting of the year, and the discussion got off to such a fast and furious start that we had to draw ourselves to order so all could hear what each other had to say:

  • "I read the book and watched the DVD four times but I'm not sure I have anything new to say."
  • "I only read it in deference to you but I loved it. I loved the language, vocabulary, turns of phrase, the eloquence."
  • "I listened to the audio book and I was bereft when it ended."
  • "This was the first time I read it and I really liked it".

... and on went the opening exclamations.

There's something about Pride and prejudice that gets us in every time. I wish I could write a thorough analysis of the group's discussion but so much was covered there's no way I could do it justice. So, what did we talk about? Well, we discussed, in no particular order:

  • the quality of Mr and Mrs Bennet's parenting. There were some differences of opinion - in degree rather than absolutely - regarding Mr Bennet's failure to take bringing up his children seriously, his treatment of his wife, and Mrs Bennet's silly behaviour. We all agreed though that Mrs Bennet correctly recognised the financial imperative and social importance of getting her daughters married. It was briefly discussed that there aren't many great parents in Austen's books.
  • how one family can produce such a wide variety of children in terms of their sense. One reason, suggested in the book, is that by the third child the parents had lost interest in/had less time for attending to the education of the children which could explain the increased silliness of the younger girls.
  • the degree to which Mr Wickham worked as a believable character as well as being an important plot device. Why, for example, did he take up with Lydia? Some argued that he saw it as a fling and that he did not seriously intend to marry her. They found this consistent with his character while others felt he is the flaw in the novel.
  • that Mr Collins is more one-dimensional than other characters. Some of us still found him believable, for all his over-the-top sycophancy.
  • that Charlotte Lucas made a rational decision for her situation and seemed to manage to make it work for her.
  • that Jane Austen transitions between the societal emphasis of the 18th century and the more individual romanticism of the 19th century.
  • that a major issue/theme explored in the novel is that of appearance, as reflected in the way Elizabeth jumps to conclusions about Darcy and Wickham based on pretty superficial observations regarding their appearance and manner. A member reminded us that the novel's original title was First impressions, which rather suggests the significance of this theme.
  • that beneath the wit and humour, the comedy, are philosophical discussions about life and how to live it, about "virtue" even.
  • how carefully plotted the novel is; how, knowing the story, it is possible to see this careful plotting and enjoy the language. 
  • the value of reading Jane Austen for social history of the period as well as for the more universal truths/values she conveys about human behaviour. We discussed the role of dance in courtship of the period and how Austen describes it; the importance of trimming bonnets and how Austen uses it to pass comment on the characters (such as Lydia's rather careless purchase of an ugly bonnet)
  • the importance of the art of conversation in Austen's era and how modern technology means that we don't practice it anywhere near as well today!
  • the comparative indolence of the well-to-do, and the amount of walking done by the middle classes (at least)
  • whether any of us could remember how we felt, what we expected, on our first reading. Most of us couldn't, really, though a couple remembered not enjoying it, finding it boring.
  • Fanny Burney's role as a precursor to and perhaps influence on Jane Austen. Should we read a Fanny Burney?
  • how tight and sparkly Austen's language is compared to that of another 19th century favourite, Thomas Hardy.
  • whether Pride and prejudice might have inspired Louisa May Alcott's Little women. We agreed that the latter lacks the wit and irony of Austen but does contain a lively, independent-minded heroine (the second of four sisters)

We covered a wide range of subjects ... but there's a lot, as you can see, that we didn't cover too. It's likely also that I haven't remembered all that we discussed. Please, Minervans, add your comments!