January 23rd, 2011

fairytale horse

The Sealed Letter --- Emma Donoghue

The review quotations on my copy of The Sealed Letter use lots of similar adjectives to describe this novel: "a deliciously wicked little romp" (according to the Seattle Times), "lurid", "intriguing", "bawdy", "titillating", "juicy", among others. Which is all true---if you want a soapy melodrama, look no further. The notorious Victorian divorce case that's the focus of The Sealed Letter provides plenty of lies, manipulation, deceptions, jealousy, and general bad behavior. It's the kind of book that you have to read in one big rush, because you can't resist the unfolding melodrama. It's kind of amazing to think that the events that entangle Emily "Fido" Faithfull, an early activist for women's rights, in the vicious divorce proceedings of Helen and Harry Codrington are all true; Emma Donoghue has a knack for picking up forgotten bits of history and uncovering the fascinating stories behind them. Its about more than a scandalous divorce case, though. Donoghue's very perceptive when it comes to emotional conflicts, and The Sealed Letter is as much about the difficult, complicated relationships between straight women and lesbians as about divorce law and women's rights. Helen and Fido' s friendship is put on trial along with Helen's marriage---and neither one of them comes out of it very well. Donoghue has sympathy for all three of her main characters, who are all trapped by laws and conventions, in their different ways.  It's incredibly entertaining, but I also found it a more thoughtful and serious book than the cover blurbs let on.

46. Katherine Mansfield, "Prelude"

The cover of my edition quotes Virginia Woolf saying, 'I was jealous of her writing - the only writing I have ever been jealous of.' Certainly there's a comparison to make between the three short works here (Prelude, At The Bay, and The Doll's House) and Woolf's stories - delicate, evocative works, deep rather than broad, perceptive yet dispassionate, examining ordinary people in very great detail.

Where I think Mansfield has the edge is her depiction of children. Kezia and Isabel are really very believable, and that's important, because we spend a lot of time inside the former's head - though, flicking back through, I find that it's no more time than we spend with any of the adults, who are convincing in themselves.

This isn't comfort reading. I found some home truths in here, and some of them were not flattering at all. It is, however, worth a read. Or a re-read.

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47. Michèle Roberts, "Fair Exchange"

I picked this book up and put it down again several times, on several separate visits to the same charity shop, before eventually deciding to buy it. I'm glad I did; it was a lovely, affirming story.

I was originally put off the fact that it deals extensively with the Romantics, who to be frank I find a bit of a bore. However, given that one of them was Mary Wollstonecraft, I succumbed.

It was a bit odd, actually. Imagine an AU where a girl who was very similar to Mary Wollstonecraft went to Mary Wollstonecraft's school and echoed a number of her life choices. And imagine that there was a family very similar to the Wordsworth family, but that the Wordsworths still existed and in fact the Saygood family occasionally went to see them.

It was quite disorientating, and I'm not quite sure what the aim was. I can understand a reluctance to write about historical figures - but then, why put them in at all?

That aside, this was a very good read. Not only did it shed some light on a side of the Romantic movement I'd not thought about much (namely, what was going on the other side of the Channel) but it was primarily a story of female friendship, loyalty, love between mothers and daughters, and feminism.

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48. Tove Jansson, "A Winter Book"

I'm not sure that I have much more to say about Tove Jansson, other than that I'm very glad that this community prompted me to pick up her later, adult, fiction. I've been raving about her ever since, made my work book club read The True Deceiver, gave my mother a copy of The Summer Book for Christmas...

This is a collection put together from various other collections; one or two I'd already come across in Travelling Light. They're a bit of a mixed bag. My absolute favourite was 'Messages', a wicked compilation of domestic notes, fanmail and impudent requests that Jansson received as the author of the Moomins series. Next best were the ones taken from The Sculptor's Daughter, heavily autobiographical, and again with a convincing child's voice.

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49. Stella Duffy, "Calendar Girl"

My apologies for the spamming. Actually, I was convinced that this was number fifty, but I can't think of anything else I've read, so perhaps I'm wrong. Anyhow, this will be the last review until a) I remember; or b) I read something else. And that really will be the last review.

Calendar Girl is a game of two halves, two interweaving strands. One is your standard lesbian private investigator story. The other is a long, lyrical lament for the Woman with the Kelly McGillis Body. And they're both gripping, and, while they seemingly start off in parallel, you find them gradually drawing closer, until you really don't want to finish the book because you know something awful is going to happen...

I'll be looking out for further books in the Saz Martin series. I liked Saz, and I like the way Duffy writes.

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