Book Reviews

Ling Di Long

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

Twelve poems, each a treasure, each with their own pace and their own way of walking, seeing and feeling. Some like the title poem Ling Di Long are nuggets of historical fiction re-imagining the lives of others, full of bittersweet notes that live in internal rhymes and vowels.

Others drift like a ‘lilting river’ of words as we ramble with Wynn-Rydderch though her thought and themes. In Why Men Fish we are ensconced in the fog on the riverbank, utterly transported into the scene.

The variety and consistency of precision with words and meter make the collection deeply satisfying, not just to read, but to experience. We touch the wool, feel the weft of many brilliantly coloured blankets.

These are poems of texture and energy. The heart of each poem beats clearly and unpretentiously, from the knife-edge Under the Rubble, so clear and full of desperate hope to the poignant work of Moths.

Perhaps there is less of a beating heart in On the Road, but then again what did you expect from a certain Madame Tussaud’s travelling show – needless to say there is humour in the collection too.

Anyone lucky enough to lay their hands on one of these pamphlets will have a treasure to keep and return to, something that will be a pleasure to dilly dally* with again and again.

*ling di long is a Welsh phrase meaning to dilly dally.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 7th March, 2018

Ling Di Long, Poetry pamphlet, Sammantha Wynn-Rhydderch, review, Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney, Book reviews.

The Overcoat and other short stories.

Nikolai Gogol

Can a story simply go anywhere?

Gogol, where so much begins. These stories demand our utter suspension of disbelief in one way or another. How else could the reader live with the fact that a nose can leave its owner and live a rebellious life of its own. How is that one man is so disgusted by a trifling insult that he overturns the happiness of his own life. And yet within the absurdity there is the ring of truth.

Gogol shows the vagaries of human nature, he feeds the desire of the reader for a good yarn, one that is grown with intelligence and humour and delights the mind.

In Old Fashioned Farmers the detail and sympathy for a simple rural existence is luxurious. We see no threat, no cloud on the horizon. If there is fraud and sloth, well it doesn’t matter as long as delicacies are still regularly on the table for the landowner. The compelling comfortableness of the house and garden veils the reader’s eyes and when death comes it is bizarre. Yet it seems inevitable. No one is to blame for the ruin that comes – Gogol has us so comfortable in our chair that we sit back, take another drink and watch.

Gogol, the master of misdirection, yet the reader is never confused or shortchanged, simply taken on a new and unexpected leg of the journey. Every character, from a faithless cat to a dishonest steward are sketched brilliantly.

Perhaps too many miserable dystopias surround the book buyer at the moment, so that the longing for a new coat and the austerity required to afford the garment seems premise enough for degradation, obsession and misery. In fact, this is not where the tale leads us as we walk the cold streets of provincial Russian town. The narrative revolves around the more subtle, more profound interactions that Akakii Akakievich has with others whilst wearing the new beloved coat.

Even when we think Akaii Akakievich is quite finished Gogol revives the story once more and offers the reader the most satisfying of digestives to a brilliantly conceived and executed short story.

These stories, with their depth, their observation of human character, their joyousness and their entertaining spirit offer the reader rich rewards and some very diverting journeys indeed.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 28th Feb, 2018

The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol. Book review, Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney, Russian Literature.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark

Jean Brodie who are you? Bold? Sensual? Virtuous? There will be diversity of opinion. Undoubtably she is a brilliant portrait by a writer of sharp wit and intellect, unafraid to pour herself generously onto the page.

The novel is pacy with an unnerving knack of undoing its own suspense by stating baldly the facts and endings before they play out before the reader. However, the denouement is very far from the point.

The ‘transformation of the everyday’ is a marker laid down to any writer who sets their work in real places. Does this phrase imply though that our own psychology is beyond our conscious control or domain? Where does religion stand within all this? How do we fare against the inevitability that context alone seems to dictate action – why she could have done nothing else?

Sandy is one of the Brodie set, she is repeatedly denigrated physically and ultimately becoming a reclusive nun. It is she who becomes most entangled in Brodie’s schemes, she acts with has no sense of victory or accomplishment, spite rules her world, fuelled by repressed and confused sexuality. She is a proxy for both Miss Brodie and Lloyd, physically and emotionally. It is ambiguous whether her vision of the paintings is true or imagined. Who is more deeply obsessed with the enigma of Miss Brodie?

Does the liberalism that Miss Brodie symbolise actually strike the girls deeply? She is unconventional to the heart and yet the meaning behind this remains difficult to pin down. Does it show something new or is her world simply caught in its time and place? Enduringly, Sharp captures beautifully a strange sadistic quality that the most carefully self-constructed people hold.

Oh, the self-sacrifice of not interfering with a ‘married man’ yet there are no qualms in altering the girls. Miss Brodie grooms their perspectives decidedly towards her own.

In the end Miss Brodie’s tragedy is her passing out of the girls lives (children always grow up). She was a temporary influence, like a lover, a maker, a memory. She was part of their hearts and minds, but never part of their home, and home has a tendency to triumph.

The text is tight, brilliantly edited and full of close observation on character and hypocrisy. Perhaps of its time is the less than nuanced vision of catholicism and slightly predictable weaknesses of the male characters. This aside, peeling away the layers and walking along with the girls with Miss Brodie out in front is a delight.

This age of reason in young people, the first intuition of strong confusing emotions brings to mind the same feeling as the boys on an island hunting pigs. There is less bloodshed with Muriel Spark though, it would ruin the tablecloth.

A modern curriculum with its emphasis on personal and social education is perhaps eroding an entire genre of books based on the end of innocence. Still the ideas at the heart of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will continue to captivate.

Gabrielle Barnby

Bergen, July, 2017

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, Gabrielle Barnby, Book review.

The Death of the Heart

Elizabeth Bowen

The Death of The Heart explores the end of innocence, each character reveals their own journey to a disabused vision of how people live. The principal character is Portia, an orphan who goes to stay with her half-brother and his wife. It is here that Portia’s innocence clashes with the self-obsessed Anna, expert in emotional manipulation, and Thomas, whose only relationship is the strange unnamed passion he has for his wife.

In many ways the book drips poignancy throughout. As the sweet and guileless Portia gradually looses her illusions and awakens to other peoples’ selfishness she herself picks up measure by measure the behaviours that she not so very long ago found totally confusing.

It is a circular dance, as she learns, she looses the protection of naivety. As her vision is truer, so it is darker. When she throws herself into the arms of an experience philanderer she learns in minutes what she had at first not had an inkling of at all – that wanting and resisting pleasure inexorably take over the simple act of being.

The descriptions of the falling away of winter and the coming of spring are glorious, skilfully couched in words that echo character and theme the landscape supports the narrative. The desolate house on the sea front at Seale where Portia cannot grasp the urge that makes her young  philanderer touch another woman is a perfect foil to the gradual dilapidation of her youthful perspective.

Bowen writes with verve and precision, creating atmosphere through layers of telling detail that is enviable and a pleasure to read. Every device she uses carries its weight, the diary, the changes in setting – nothing is superfluous. The writing and sensitivity to human nature is exquisite, however, I must admit that the denouement left me non-plussed.

Perhaps I do not share Bowen’s sardonic sense of humour – I rarely found my lips twitching to laugh. Perhaps it is the terrible absurdity of it all that makes the cruelty, outrageous self-allowances and prudery resound as tragic as well as comic.

Again, it could be that these characters are so subtle and three-dimensional that they are a bit too much like a person one knows well, and that makes it hard to laugh.

Or perhaps it is because I have daughter reaching a certain age.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 31st Jan, 2018

The Death of The Heart, Elizabeth Bowen, Review, Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney

The Heart of a Dog

by Mikhal Bulgakov

Astounding, simply incredible, to mix the most macabre of ghost story plot lines with political satire and a vision of the future that borders on science fiction.

The immediacy of the prose pounds at the reader, exclamations and melodrama mingle with subtle and extended suspense. The eerie atmosphere and heightened sensuality throughout is nothing less than delightful. It’s a piece that reminds me of the carved stone balls that fit one inside another. Perhaps a better analogy would be Russian dolls! Yes! Of course you know this review has to be over-exaggerated because any hum-drum literary analysis would be nonsensical.

The dog – Sharikov, begins with his doggy consciousness in his doggy perceived world, starved and abused, ready to die and ready to worship anyone who offers him food. Food, he must have food! Warmth and protection are desirable but secondary. It is of the utmost importance not to be starving! Only when this is satisfied do other elements become important.

Yet there is the small matter of Philip Philipovich replacing the dog’s testicles and pituitary gland with those of a recently deceased man who was a gambler, a drinker etc. Add to this the erupting conflict with the house committee that demands the surgeon share his apartment and the result is brutal slapstick mayhem. Naturally, the dog falls in with the Committee.

Philip Philipovich is protected by friends of course, people who owe him their virility.

The larger analogy is to the Russian revolution, sadly I miss much of the subtlety because of my ignorance. And yet the central point remains. What was the motivation of the surgeon after all? To aid the patient? To give him freedom of thought and enlightenment? Or was it for his own aggrandisement? A cruel experiment?

Ultimately, the ‘monster’ becomes too much of a challenge for its creator’s authority. Brain and balls are reverted. The emasculation of the animal is done without agonising moral dilemma. It is a pragmatic solution – better than simply murdering the thing. But then what of its life back in the shadows, gradually forgetting everything it has learned, forgetting everything that for a short period it was allowed to dream, to choose, to learn and perhaps one day to love.

Ten days that shook the world and back again, all in a seven room apartment. Brilliant.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 8th Jan, 2018

Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney, The Heart of a Dog, Book Review, Mikhail Bulgakov


by George Mackay Brown

Magnus is an atmospheric mystical book that guides the reader through the key events leading up to the martyrdom of Magnus Erlendson whose 900th anniversary was celebrated this year.

The tale is frequently carried by two peasants, Mans and Hild. Their lives are bound to the seasons, to their faith and to their poverty. They who suffer first hand the effects of civil strife between Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson because of the divided Orcadian Earlship. At times, two tinkers also take up the narrative. The pair are made up of the good hearted Jock and the blind, irascible Mary who is eventually cured following Jock makes devotion to the recently slain Magnus.

The diversions into the scraps between the Paulson and Erlson men are thrown into sharp modern day relief with a sinister passage set in the Jew extermination camps of Nazi Germany (I wondered for a long time why my library copy had a swastika on its cover). Again a chef is called upon to do a filthy and barbarous act by men who are barely recognisable as animals, never mind humans.

This is far more than a pastoral sequence and the telling of the life of a saint. There are no pallid tableaux to warm the hearts of the faithful and send comfort that even in this windswept locality great martyrs rise. The narrative is an indictment of human weakness and the negative effect of logical political conclusions on the lives of the people that leaders are meant to serve rather than exploit. Modern parallels abound.

There is no aggrandisement of Magnus the man, nothing convoluted or hyperbolic about his uniting with Christ during that final night of torment and prayer.

What choice did Magnus have? That remains an eternal question for so many human actions. It can be applied to Hakon as freely as to Magnus, to their men at arms, to the way Mans drinks and abuses Hild, to the way Mary remains ungrateful and feckless. Do they have any more choice than the barely seed thrown into the rill on the hillside? or the seeds carried by the wind and throttled by weeds?

There is delightful richness in George Mackay Brown’s prose, slowing the reader down as poetry does, producing a steady rhythm, an ebb and release of story that is born of confidence and mastery of the form. It is certainly not a book to be rushed through, as the library will know from my many renewals.

There are passages that I want to revisit, to hold again in my mind – I will now return my copy and in time, seek out a copy of my own.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 1st Nov, 2017

Review, Magnus, George Mackay Brown, Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney, books.