The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton

This 1908 novel from the author of the Father Brown mystery series is subtitled A Nightmare and it certainly does have a dreamlike feel. I picked it up expecting a vintage detective novel and emerged at the other end wondering what on earth I had just been reading and what it meant.

The novel opens with a conversation between two men who meet for the first time one evening in Saffron Park in London. One, Lucian Gregory, is an anarchist poet; the other, Gabriel Syme, is a member of the secret anti-anarchist police. They spend the whole of the first chapter debating the meanings of anarchy and of law and order, using arguments like this:

Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree. “About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself—there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”

“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

And this:

“An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.

“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.

It seems they will never agree, but to at least prove that he is serious about his cause, Gregory invites Syme to accompany him to an underground meeting of anarchists. Gregory gets more than he bargained for, however, when Syme puts himself forward for a position in which he himself had been interested: one of seven coveted seats on the Council of the Seven Days, the central council of the European anarchists.

Elected to the council and given the code name Thursday, Syme is introduced to his fellow days of the week, but will he be able to prevent them from guessing that he is an undercover policeman? And who is Sunday, their mysterious and sinister leader who is so big, so powerful and so much larger than life?

I don’t think there is much more I can say about the plot without spoiling the story. I can’t discuss the themes of the novel either, or the symbolism it contains, because those things are also spoilers. It’s such a strange and unusual book that I really think it’s best not to know too much about it before you begin. Just be aware that it’s not a conventional mystery or detective novel (or a conventional anything). There are parts that I loved, such as a scene where Syme is followed through the streets of London in the snow; there are funny moments too, some witty and amusing dialogue, and lots of thought-provoking philosophical ideas. At other times it becomes a little bit too bizarre, particularly after the action moves to France halfway through the book.

There are plot twists throughout the novel, some of which are quite predictable – but the revelations near the end of the book were not what I had been expecting at all. Looking back, there were plenty of hints and clues, but I didn’t pick up on them. I’m sure I didn’t fully grasp what Chesterton was trying to say, but I think there are probably different ways to interpret this book anyway. It certainly left me with a lot to think about and I love it when that happens – when you continue to engage with a story even after you’ve turned the final page.

I don’t have any more of Chesterton’s books, but I see there are some I could read for free at Project Gutenberg. I have previously read two of his Father Brown short stories (included in Miraculous Mysteries and Murder Under the Christmas Tree); should I read more of those or is there another of his books that you would recommend?

Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

The Valentine House surprised me. Having read Emma Henderson’s first novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, in 2011, I had expected this new one, her second, to be something similar. Instead, what I found was something completely different. Grace Williams was a moving, thought-provoking story of a young girl in a 1950s mental institution; The Valentine House is probably best described as a family saga set in the French Alps.

The house referred to in the title is Arete, a large chalet in the mountains overlooking the village of Hext. It was built by a British mountaineer, Sir Anthony Valentine, in the 19th century and is used as a summer home by successive generations of his family. Our story begins in 1914 when Mathilde, a teenage girl from a farm in the valley, goes to work for the Valentines. Mathilde is an ‘Ugly’, the term given to the unattractive young women who make up Arete’s workforce, specially chosen by Sir Anthony’s wife, Lady C, as being less likely to catch her husband’s eye. Spending her summers at the house, Mathilde gets to know the Valentine family, particularly Daisy, a girl the same age as herself who becomes gradually wilder and more unstable as the years go by.

Decades later, in the summer of 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with several of his cousins. Even though Sir Anthony is long gone, his legacy lives on in the Alpine Club which he created to entertain the younger members of the family, and George and his cousins continue to carry out Club activities such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘Paideia’. Mathilde is still there too, an elderly woman now, but as much a part of Arete life as she has ever been.

The Valentine House is a dual time period novel: a chapter set in 1976 and written from George’s perspective is followed by one narrated by Mathilde and set earlier in the century. Eventually the two begin to converge and secrets which have been kept hidden from the reader (and from some of the characters) start to be revealed. What is the truth behind the disappearance of Margaret, Sir Anthony’s daughter, whose visits to Arete came to an abrupt stop many years ago? Mathilde is sure that if she could only find out what happened to Margaret everything else that has puzzled her about the Valentines would begin to make sense. Although some of the plot twists and revelations could probably be predicted, I didn’t even try to guess – I just relaxed and let the story take me in whichever direction it wanted to go, which meant I was kept in suspense until the various Valentine mysteries started to unfold.

I did struggle at times to keep track of all the characters and how they were related to each other. This is probably not surprising, as there are five generations of the family featured in the novel; drawing a simple family tree helped to solve the problem, although I wish I’d had the sense to do it at the beginning of the book instead of when I was already halfway through!

I think what I loved most about The Valentine House was the setting; I haven’t been to the area of France described in the book – the Haute-Savoie – but I would like to as Emma Henderson makes it sound beautiful. And this is a good place for me to mention that Sir Anthony himself has a unique way of describing the Alpine mountains and valleys, which you’ll discover in the opening paragraph of the novel. If you find that the language he uses makes you blush, don’t worry – this does not reflect the style of writing throughout the rest of the book!

Although I found both threads of the story very enjoyable, it usually seems to be inevitable with dual timeline novels that readers will have a preference for one storyline over the other and in my case it was the one narrated by Mathilde. And it was Mathilde whose story lingered on in my mind for days after finishing the book.

Now I’m wondering what Emma Henderson’s third book will be about. I hope there’s going to be one!

Howards End by E.M. Forster

howards-endThis is only the second book I’ve read by E.M. Forster – the first one being A Room with a View. With plenty of his books left to choose from, I decided that the next one I read would be Howards End, which was recommended to me by almost everyone who commented on my review of A Room with a View back in 2013!

Howards End is the story of two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, and their relationship with the Wilcox family. At the beginning of the novel, Helen – the younger and more impulsive of the two – accepts an invitation to visit Howards End, the Wilcox country home, where she becomes romantically involved with the younger son, Paul Wilcox. Although their romance is quickly broken off, the two families stay in touch and the elder Schlegel sister, the more practical and sensible Margaret, becomes good friends with Paul’s mother, Ruth.

Ruth Wilcox longs to show Margaret Howards End, feeling that her new friend will appreciate the house more than her own children do. Margaret never gets a chance to visit while Mrs Wilcox is alive, but when she dies, early in the novel, she tries to bequeath Howards End to Margaret. However, the rest of the Wilcox family choose not to inform Margaret and burn the note which describes Ruth’s dying wish, leaving Margaret none the wiser. As time goes by, Margaret gets to know Ruth’s widowed husband, Henry, and a friendship forms which soon develops into something more. Could Margaret end up living at Howards End one day after all?

Meanwhile, Helen has also made a new friend: Leonard Bast, a young insurance clerk who is married to an older woman, Jacky. Acting on advice from Henry Wilcox, the Schlegels warn Leonard that the company he works for is in trouble and that he should look for another job. Leonard follows this advice, but when things go wrong and he ends up with nothing, Helen blames Henry for his misfortunes.  Will she ever be able to forgive him?

Published in 1910, Howards End explores the relationships between these three families, each occupying a different position in the British class system. The Wilcoxes are wealthy, materialistic capitalists who have made their money from the Imperial and West African Rubber Company. The Schlegels, who are half German, are cultured, intellectual and idealistic, and apparently based on the real-life Bloomsbury Group. Finally, the lower-middle class Leonard Bast has found himself impoverished and stuggling to get by, but is trying to improve his lot in life by exposing himself to music and literature.

Class is obviously an important theme in this novel, then, but there are others too, such as gender roles and feminism. With such a variety of characters, we get a variety of views ranging from Henry Wilcox saying that “the uneducated classes are so stupid”, Mrs Wilcox’s opinion that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men”, and Margaret thinking to herself, “Ladies sheltering behind men, men sheltering behind servants – the whole system’s wrong.” It’s interesting to think that within a few years of this book being published, the outbreak of war in Europe and also the progress of the women’s suffrage movement would bring social change to Britain and the world Forster is describing would no longer exist.

Howards End is a beautifully written novel and a fascinating and thought-provoking one. However, I don’t think I can say that I loved it, partly because I found so many of the characters difficult to like and care about.  Although Forster himself writes about each character with warmth and empathy, I didn’t feel that I was forming a very strong connection with any of them.  I preferred A Room with a View, but I’m probably in the minority with that as so many people have told me that this one is their favourite by Forster. I’m still looking forward to reading more of his novels, though, and I think A Passage to India will be next.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter There really is a place called Winter; it’s in Saskatchewan, Canada, and at the time when Patrick Gale’s novel is set, it’s a small, newly-established settlement just off the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Winter is home to the fictional Harry Cane, a character based on the author’s own great-grandfather, but how did such a quiet, gentle and seemingly conventional Englishman end up in so harsh and remote a place? A Place Called Winter is Harry’s story, explaining exactly what the circumstances were which brought him to Canada, and what happened to him after he arrived there.

At the beginning of the novel, Harry is a shy, stammering young man living in Edwardian London. Doing what is expected of him, he gets married, and although he has no real love or passion for his wife, it’s not an unhappy marriage and they have a child together. Things start to go wrong for Harry when he falls in love with a man and is forced to leave the country to escape the resulting scandal. Given the opportunity to farm some land in Canada, Harry begins to build a new life for himself alone in a place called Winter.

Harry’s experiences in Canada are a mixture of good and bad. The challenging environment in which he finds himself requires skills he doesn’t possess and must learn quickly if he is to survive in the wilderness. With the help of some new friends, Harry starts to grow in strength and knowledge, but not everyone he meets is quite so pleasant and the behaviour of the villainous Troels Munck poses an obstacle which must be overcome before he has a chance of finding true happiness.

I found this a very moving and poignant novel, as well as a beautifully written one. I couldn’t help comparing it to Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer which I had read just a few weeks earlier. The two books have some similar themes, most notably a man trying to come to terms with his sexuality within the confines of early 20th century society, but I thought this novel had a warmth which the other lacked; Gale really engaged my emotions and made me care about his characters in a way that Galgut didn’t.

A Place Called Winter is my first book read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist and I hope the others on the list will be as good as this one. I haven’t read any of Patrick Gale’s other novels and I understand that he doesn’t usually write historical fiction, but I was very impressed with his writing and would be interested in trying more of his work.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Arctic Summer As someone who has only read one novel by E.M. Forster – A Room with a View – I wasn’t sure whether reading Arctic Summer would be a good idea. It’s a fictional biography of Forster, concentrating on the period during which he was working on his novel A Passage to India, so I thought it might be more sensible to wait until I had read that book first. Arctic Summer is on the list of books I need to read for my Walter Scott Prize Project, though, so when I saw it in the library I couldn’t resist picking it up and taking it home.

I should start by saying that as well as not having read much of Forster’s work, I also – before reading this novel – knew almost nothing about the man himself. The first thing I discovered was that Galgut refers to his main character not as Forster or Edward but as Morgan, which was his middle name. Forster went by this name to distinguish himself from his father, another Edward (and apparently he was originally supposed to be called Henry anyway – there was some confusion over names at the baptism).

We first meet Forster in 1912 as he sets sail on his first trip to India at the age of thirty-three. He is planning to visit his friend Syed Ross Masood, whom he had tutored in Latin several years earlier while Masood was a student in England. Forster is becoming increasingly aware that what he feels for Masood is not just friendship but also love. However, he is not entirely comfortable with his feelings yet and is plagued by doubts and frustrations; this was a time when homosexuality was neither legal nor seen as socially acceptable and we are reminded that fewer than twenty years have passed since Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’.

Later, during World War I, Forster travels to Egypt to work for the Red Cross, and here he falls in love again, this time with Mohammed el-Adl. His love for Masood and Mohammed forms the main focus of Arctic Summer – and this, to me, was slightly disappointing. Obviously his relationships with these two men (and others) were very important to Forster and had an influence on his writing, but I would have preferred to read a more balanced novel that also explored other aspects of his life, rather than just page after page describing his sexual experiences and desires.

I did enjoy reading about Egypt and India (the visit to the Barabar Caves was particularly memorable) and I was also pleased to see brief appearances from other writers of the period such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The writing was of a high quality too and Galgut tells Forster’s story with sensitivity and understanding. Too much of the book bored me, though, and it failed to move me as much as I would have liked and expected. I had difficulty relating the story of Morgan’s love affairs to what little I know of Forster’s writing and I think I should definitely have waited to read this until I’d at least read A Passage to India and possibly Maurice as well.

This was one of the few disappointments I’ve had during my reading from the Walter Scott Prize shortlists, but don’t let me put you off. Looking at other reviews it seems that a lot of people have read it and loved it. As I’ve mentioned, my own lack of familiarity with Forster’s life and work could have been part of my problem. If nothing else, reading Arctic Summer has made me want to read more of E.M. Forster’s novels sooner rather than later.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck This is the first volume of a trilogy following the lives of the Langdon family across a period of a century. Beginning in 1920 and ending in 2020 (although Some Luck only takes us up to 1953), we will get to know several generations of the family over the course of the three novels, watching as the children grow up, get married and have children of their own, sharing their hopes and dreams, and accompanying them through some of the events which shaped the last one hundred years of American history.

At the heart of the story are Walter and Rosanna Langdon, a young married couple who, as the novel opens, are settling into life on the farm they have recently bought in Iowa. Rosanna has just given birth to their first child, Frank, and in the first few chapters, not only do we see things through the eyes of the two adults, but also through the baby’s, to whom everything in the world is new and strange. As the years go by, four more sons and daughters follow: quiet, gentle, animal-loving Joey; the sweet and angelic Lillian; Henry, who loves reading; and Claire, the youngest and her father’s favourite. Frank himself is handsome, clever and adventurous – and the contrast between his personality and Joey’s adds an interesting angle to the dynamics of the Langdon family.

The novel is carefully structured so that each chapter is devoted to one year and this keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace. However, it also gives the book an episodic feel; each time a new chapter begins and we find that we’ve jumped straight into the following year, there’s a sense that there are some gaps in the story and that things may have changed without our knowledge in a way that wouldn’t happen with a more fluent narrative. Also, as is true in all of our lives, some years are more eventful than others, which means that some chapters are more interesting than others.

Really, though, this is not a book you would choose to pick up if you were looking for a thrilling, action-packed read. Some Luck is a quiet, low-key story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Much of the novel is concerned with farming and all it involves: planting and harvesting crops, shearing sheep, trying to cope with summer droughts and winter snowdrifts. It reminded me in this respect of other farm-based novels I’ve read – Willa Cather’s My Antonia and, of course, Little House on the Prairie.

There are some dramas in the lives of the Langdons, but they are relatively small ones – the sort of things that could happen to any of us. Historical events are experienced mainly as the effects filter through to their remote Iowa farm – advances in farming methods, such as the replacement of horses with tractors, cause a lot of excitement and controversy – but occasionally a family member decides to leave the farm and see more of the world. Frank enlists in the army during the Second World War and is sent to North Africa, Rosanna’s sister Eloise moves to Chicago and marries a communist, and Lillian…well, I won’t say too much about what Lillian does except that it’s the one thing I found hard to believe.

Some Luck is the first book I have read by Jane Smiley. I’m aware that A Thousand Acres was her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and might have been a better choice for me to start with, but I did still enjoy this one and am planning to continue with the trilogy soon. I have the next two books – Early Warning and Golden Age – ready to read.