Recently, I’ve Read … The Lake House by Kate Morton

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As I revealed in an earlier post, I was ridiculously – nay, off-the-charts-excited – ahead of the publication of this, Kate Morton’s fifth novel. It is tricky to explain exactly what it is that I find so captivating about her books. There is just something about them that transports me back to an earlier, simpler, and less stressful time when reading was merely about escapism and getting entirely lost in a fictional world. She is, for want of a less cliched term, a consummate storyteller.

It is true that Morton’s novels have a formula. The novelist has an academic background and a particular interest in the literary gothic. These tropes underpin all of her stories: the haunting of the past by the present, houses that often seem to be living embodiments of the past and become characters in their own right, long-held family secrets that are about to be dragged into the open.

The Lake House is no exception and has all of the hallmarks of a classic Morton tale. At the very heart of the narrative is a 70-year old family mystery. In 1933, eleven-month-old Theo Edevane went missing  from his family’s Cornish summer home – the Lake House of the title – on the night of his parents’ Midsummer party. When the trail goes cold after a few weeks, the Edevanes lock up the house and go back to London, never to return.

Fast-forward to 2003. D.C Sadie Sparrow is taking enforced leave from the police force after becoming too emotionally involved in a high-profile case. She goes to stay with her grandfather, Bertie, in Cornwall and, whilst out running one day, stumbles, quite literally, across the Lake House. Not only is it all locked up, it is exactly how the Edevanes left it.

Sadie soon becomes fixated with the abandoned property and with the unsolved case of the missing Edevane child. At the same time, the reader becomes aware that Theo’s older sister Alice, now a famous crime writer, knows a lot more about her brother’s fate than she has ever been able to reveal. When Sadie contacts her asking for help with the unofficial investigation, Alice’s guilt threatens to overwhelm her. Will she help Sadie and, in doing so, be able to lay the ghosts of her past to rest?

And now for the tough bit: my thoughts. As much as it baffled me utterly, I just didn’t warm to this book. I went through a bit of a ‘it’s not you, it’s me phase’ for a time. Perhaps I had grown jaded and cynical. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood. Perhaps the chest infection I am currently fighting had just knocked me all out of sorts.

But, after mulling it over and seeing a few similar verdicts on Goodreads and elsewhere, I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t just me; that this is a below-par Kate Morton novel. It feels flat and lacking in atmosphere, somehow. Although I was always more than keen to find out what happened in the end, and never considered giving up on the book, I thought that the story really dragged. This was largely due to several lengthy pre-1933 flashbacks that, ultimately, didn’t add all that much to the narrative. To add insult to injury, the explanation was a little bit mad and didn’t make much sense and, after being dragged out for almost 600 pages, the storyline was wrapped up in Scooby Doo-esque fashion with unseemly haste.

The narrative set in 1933 certainly boasted much more compelling characters than its modern-day counterpart. I thought that Morton’s depiction of Theo and Alice’s mother, Eleanor, was insightful and heartrending, showing her writing at its very best. In contrast, the modern-day characters, particularly Sadie, were wholly uninteresting. Furthermore, there was far too much going on in Sadie’s life that I just didn’t care about. All this served to clog the narrative in a frustrating fashion.

All in all, there are flickers of Morton magic here but the light burns relatively dimly. It is worth reading: the central narrative is compelling, even if it is frustrating spun out, oddly structured and, ultimately, a bit daft. Perhaps not the best place to start for readers new to Kate Morton’s work, though.

Recently I’ve Read … Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty

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Until recently, I had no idea that Now, Voyager was a novel at all; no clue that the Bette Davis film of 1942 was based on a best seller published the previous year. Unusually, the film is remarkably faithful to the book and both share those immortal closing lines:

Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.

The novel is one of several Higgins Prouty wrote about the Vale family. The rest appear to be out of print and the author herself is somewhat neglected. Arguably, she is now best known for her association with Sylvia Plath, whom she sponsored for a time and who ridiculed her erstwhile benefactor by portraying her as the meddling Philomena Guinea in The Bell Jar. Like the work of so many women writers from the period, Now, Voyager deserves to be more widely known and read.

The novel’s intriguing title comes from a poem by Walt Whitman:

The Untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,

Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

The Voyager of the title is Charlotte Vale, a member of a well-to-do Bostonian family. After suffering a nervous breakdown, she sets out on a voyage of self-discovery, hoping to escape the clutches of her domineering mother who treats her as an unpaid companion. Charlotte also seeks to escape the role of dowdy spinster aunt that her family – and to a larger extent society – has foisted on her. Taking the advice of Dr Jaquith, and with the support of her sister-in-law Lisa, Charlotte hopes to cement her recovery by taking a cruise around Europe. Whilst on the cruise, Charlotte falls in love with Jerry, a married man. Will this experience aid or destroy her attempts to redefine her identity?

When it was first published in 1941, Now, Voyager was categorised – rather dismissively – as ‘women’s fiction’; as a melodrama or romance. More recently, it has been published by the Feminist Press as part of their superb Women Write Pulp series.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this highly readable and engrossing novel is that it doesn’t immediately fit into either category. It all requires a bit of mulling-over, meaning that the novel has stayed with me for some time (I love it when that happens!).  It clearly has more about it than the overblown melodrama it was originally billed as. But feminist? That requires some unpicking.

Initially standing in the way of the novel’s feminist credentials are:

  • The fact that Charlotte’s ‘revinvention’ involves a physical transformation, suggesting that rehabiliatation, happiness and acceptance (both by oneself and by others) require a slim figure, tailored clothes and perfectly plucked eyebrows
  • That Charlotte feels in some way validated by being attractive to (and loved by) men
  • That happiness for Charlotte eventually stems from the opportunity to mother a child (and the child of her beloved at that)
  • Some well-worn gender stereotypes – not least the domineering mother and the doting father

But Higgins Prouty invites us to probe further, and thus to really interrogate the feminist themes. For Charlotte’s transformation isn’t just physical: she learns to be more assertive, to be self-determining. In doing so, she becomes more confident about demonstrating her wit and intelligence, about asserting her personality. The external changes   signal the internal changes to others, most notably to Charlotte’s mother. But these physical changes are not dismissed as unimportant: they do serve to give Charlotte confidence, as does her attractiveness to the opposite sex. They help Charlotte to develop a sense of self-worth. This is feminism, then, but not a simple, black and white take on it where liking glamourous clothes and desiring male attention are considered ‘anti’.

The novel also places a great emphasis on female friendship, particularly between Charlotte and Lisa. It shows women supporting, rather than competing, with each other.

And, yes, Charlotte remains a spinster aunt at the end of the novel but she has remodelled the role to suit herself. Always honest, intelligent and witty, Charlotte becomes a woman of means. And there is potential to read the novel, not as a doomed romance, but as a feminist fairytale in which Charlotte gets the house, the wealth and the child she longs for without having to submit to marriage.

Now, Voyager is a beautifully written page-turner with a wonderful, three-dimensional protagonist. It has some pleasing touches of period glamour and is pretty thought-provoking to boot.

Recently I’ve Read … Slade House by David Mitchell

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Slade House is a mini-Mitchell novel that originated from a short story the author posted on Twitter to promote his last book, The Bone Clocks. Indeed, the two texts are related: the former takes place in the same ‘universe’ as the latter. Both revolve around two warring bands of immortals: the Horologists (the goodies) and the Anchorites (the baddies). As one Horologist says to an Anchorite in Slade House, succinctly describing the distinction between them,

You murder for immortality … We are sentenced to it.

This concept is explained in (perhaps excessive) detail in Slade House, so I don’t think the novella poses a massive problem to those who haven’t read The Bone Clocks. Yes, those who have will be able to spot connections, recognise characters and, perhaps, make sense of the whole thing a little more readily (though not necessarily. Parts of this tale are exceptionally convoluted to say the least). But I reckon the relationship could just as easily be reversed and that Slade House could serve as a good introduction to the world of The Bone Clocks.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether Slade House could function independently; i.e. is it worth the time of those who have no interest in The Bone Clocks whatsoever and just fancy a seasonally spooky read?

My answer is – perhaps frustratingly – ‘yes and no’.

Although it is much shorter than his other works, Slade House is, in the majority of ways, typical Mitchell fare. Which means that we get interconnected stories (five in total) that are either searingly brilliant or staggeringly dull and overwritten.

The action opens in 1979 and each subsequent story moves us nine years ahead until we end up in our own time: October 2015. Each story is connected and revolves around Slade House, a mysterious building that seems to materialise once every nine years and result in a inexplicable disappearance.

It seemed to me that the five stories gradually diluted in quality. Luckily, the first one sets the bar increbily high by being rather brilliant. Our protagonist in 1979 is Nathan Bishop, a 13-year-old boy who is clearly on the autistic spectrum and has been summoned to Slade House along with his mother. “Inventive” and “ambitious” are the adjectives most commonly associated with Mitchell. His artful rendering of Nathan’s overly literal take on the world suggests that “very, very funny” should be added to the list:

‘I’m not in the Scouts any more,’ I remind her. Mr Moody our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter. I’d been on the local news and everything. Everyone was angry, but I was only following orders

Mitchell skillfully evokes Nathan’s voice so that he doesn’t just make us laugh; he provides a real insight into the life of a teenage outsider:

Mum never said anything about other boys at Lady Grayer’s musical soiree. Other boys mean questions have to get settled. Who’s coolest? Who’s hardest? Who’s brainiest? Normal boys care about this stuff and kids like Gary Ingram fight about it.

Nathan’s honesty, his clear-sighted but heart-rending acceptance of himself as decidedly not normal, means that we really care about him. So when the spookiness kicks in – when weird eyeless paintings appear and time begins to become woryingly out of joint – Nathan is more to us than just the Victim. And thus his story is lifted above standard supernatural fare.

Subsequent protagonists don’t quite have Nathan’s charm, but the 1988 and 1997 installments – the first concerning a boorish policeman sent to investigate Slade House and the second a group of students whose “ParaSoc” also takes an interest in the mysterious dwelling – are involving yarns with healthy doses of tension and chills.

In the three full-length Mitchell novels I have read – Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks – there has been one chapter or section I wanted to tear out in frustration. Slade House is no exception: the story set in 2006 is one long, tedious info-dump. The final, 2015 installment picks up a little but these last two stories are very weak and nowhere near as compelling as the first. In the final section, the supernatural suggestions  are sidelined entirely in favour of high-concept, over-explained fantasy elements. At this point, Slade House stops masquerading as a superior haunted house mystery and becomes tedious and convoluted.

All in all, then, Slade House runs out of steam and limps to the finish line. That shouldn’t, however, detract from the brilliance of its opening. Those first three stories are as inventive, gripping and entertaining as anything Mitchell has written previously. And even better – you can tear through this one in a day; for the most part, it will be time well spent.