Category Archives: Fiction

Book reviews of the fiction I read

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori

This was one of the books that was recommended to me at the start of the year as one to challenge my view. It does seem, though, that it was merely a recommendation from a friend of the author who was just trying to boost sales by 1. But I got it anyway.

Neither Here Nor There is a debut novel from Drori.

The story centres on Etsy. We meet her shortly after she has made a major life decision; she has left a community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, known as the Haredi. Her dream is to “become secular”. The book’s title can then be understood as saying that Etsy has left one life, but has not yet integrated into a new one. She is an in between space, neither here nor there.

The impetus for the plot is provided by Mark, who is the first person she happens to meet. What evolves is the love story between them, though it did come across as a bit rushed and contrived. There was no reason given for their attraction; it was little more than “love at first sight”.

One of the things I couldn’t get past as I read was that Drori was very keen on getting the reader to understand the emotional side of the characters. Quite often, though, this was told to us in a quite forthright manner, rather than being shown to us. So the characterisation ends up a little flat, with no mystery at all. The whole person is laid out on the page for the reader to see. But this happens for both Etsy and Mark. So while we might used to be reading a book from one character’s perspective, what Drori does is try to show us both main characters at the same time.

The other problem I had with the book was the lack of a sense of place. So much has been invested in the emotional feel of the book, that Jerusalem fades into the background. With a few exceptions, the story could take place almost anywhere. I wanted to be able to get a sense of the ground underneath my feet, the heat of the atmosphere, the smells of the city, but it was all just a bit thin. It was almost as though the intention had been to write a play rather than a novel, given how dialogue-driven the whole book was.

The progression of the plot has a very familiar feel to it. Anyone who has encountered Romeo and Juliet knows the idea of the love between two people from different, but intersecting worlds. What we get here then is the walking down of a well-trodden path, almost to the point of cliché. It’s not a bad book, especially considering it is a first novel, but it’s not one that I feel rushed to recommend to people as (to compare to another debut novel) I did with The Night Circus. If Drori writes a second novel, I wouldn’t be disinclined to read it, but I would be hoping for something with a little more substance to it, where the reader gets to smell the atmosphere and has to work a little to get to know the characters and their motivations.

Book Review: Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

After having finished Theology of Hope, I was in dire need of a light read. Wodehouse is one of those writers that almost everyone has heard of, quite a few have read and who garners a loyal following. Yet I have, thus far in 31+ years on this planet, never before read any of his works. It seemed only right to start at the beginning, only there is some ambiguity over precisely where to start, for the characters of Jeeves & Wooster made some early appearances in Wodehouse’s short stories, but I was hoping to read a novel. So it seemed that Thank You, Jeeves was the appropriate place to start.

One of the odd things about Wodehouse is that even if you haven’t read him, you are likely to have heard of Jeeves & Wooster or even seen a few episodes of the television programme that was made starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the title roles. So I certainly came to the book with those two forming my mental image, as the book opens with a duologue between the two.

That particular opening sees Jeeves hand in his notice (that’s hardly a spoiler, it’s the first chapter) over the matter of Wooster playing a banjolele very badly. This has also prompted a number of complaints from Wooster’s neighbours, but being a stubborn old so-and-so, he decides not to abandon the instrument, but instead to abandon his home. The story then transfers to a coastal area, where Jeeves decides to rent a house and obtain the services of a new valet.

From here on, there are a series of farcical episodes that befall Bertie and thwart his every plan. Old friends and old loves bounce around his world (or rather, he bounces around theirs) in a delightfully comic fashion.

A reasonable review cannot pass over one very uncomfortable fact about the book. Written in the 1930s, there are racial epithets used here that were taken as norm, which I am loathed to put into writing myself and, if I were to use them in the workplace, I might well find myself unemployed. But it doesn’t end there. Much of the 2nd half of the book revolves around a running joke of one of the characters “blacking up” and getting into all sorts of scrapes. I strongly doubt that this particular book would get made into a tv programme or film because of this (though I later found out that this episode was adapted for tv as recently as 1991). So if you are thinking of reading it, consider this a due warning, in case you are sensitive to racism.

With that warning aside, one is left trying to read through the book and see what was intended. While it firmly falls into the category of comedy, there is an element here of the Victorian sensation novel. The speed with which events happen, along with the sudden plot turns ensue, result in a story that is really rather fast-paced. The entire action takes place over just a couple of days. It provided me with the light relief I was after and was, all in all, a rather jolly tale.

If the world’s getting you down and you need a bit of gentle escapism, then this wouldn’t be a bad book to go for. Though very different in genre, it sort of reminded me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I definitely intend to return to Wodehouse later and read some more of his works.

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

This has been by quite some margin the most anticipated book of the year. All over the English-speaking world, people have been busily re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation for the release of its follow-up. This particular reader chose not to. I maintained a strong memory of the impression that To Kill A Mockingbird made on me when I read it as part of my English Literature GCSE. I didn’t want to alter that memory, flawed as it may be, but I have been timing my reading carefully so that I would be able to read the sequel as soon as it was released. You may recall I wrote about my hopes and fears about the novel.

So it was that on the day of its publication, Tuesday the 14th of July 2015, that I set off during my lunchbreak to Foyles to pick up a copy. So what did I find?

*spoiler alert – I will be giving some details of the storyline in this review*

Set some 20 years after Mockingbird, we get a reintroduction to some of the characters. The book’s focus is on Jean Louise, who most readers will remember went by her nickname, Scout. But here, she’s a grown woman, so references to Scout are few and far between. There are some flashbacks to her childhood with her brother Jem, but very few of these link directly to the summer of Tom Robinson. The case is referred to, though not by name. In this recollection, the defendant was said to have had one arm. I don’t recall Tom having one arm in Mockingbird, so maybe one of you can enlighten me on this point.

The first 100 pages or so are setting us up, introducing the characters, but very little else. That might be a bit unfair, because Lee is good at making her characters have independent voices. Much of the book is written in dialogue form, and there are times when Lee drops the narrative aid of “said Jean Louise” or “said Atticus” for some time. If this were a lesser writer, sometimes you have to turn back a page or two to work out who is speaking. Not so in this case. The voices are so distinctive that with just a sentence or two, you know whose voice is speaking. And even as I read in my head, without overdoing the phonetic spellings, I still ended up with an array of American accents in my inner monologue.

Then comes the sucker punch. Jean discovers some literature in Atticus’ possession which are of a decidedly racist nature. Jean Louise is then torn. To her, Atticus had been the model of all that was virtuous and just. Yet here, and in a public meeting he was spotted at, he was seen sharing a platform with those who viewed one race as superior to another. To whom can Jean Louise turn?

Towards the end of the book, there is a practical issue that has caused some problems. That is, on the books with the orange covers, the bottom of some of the pages haven’t printed properly. There are several paragraphs missing. So I still cannot tell you for sure how the book ends. I have a very good idea, but some of the details are missing.

What I can tell you is that it has really pissed some people off. While Mockingbird was seen as a triumph of liberal social attitudes over racism, there is more of a compromise here. If you can’t beat them, learn to live with them. In some ways this is even more liberal, as Atticus refuses to make an enemy out of racists. Instead, he is adamant that they must be given a platform and not have their views censored simply because some might disagree with them.

Some reviewers have chosen to see this is as Atticus becoming a racist. It’s not quite that simple.

What the book shares with Mockingbird is that it is a book about growing up. Only now this is something more of a grown-up kind of ‘growing up’. The thing is, Jean Louise idolised Atticus somewhat (as have many readers – or viewers of the film of Mockingbird) and at some point we must learn that our idols will let us down. Atticus knew it was coming, as did others, but Jean Louise didn’t. He was her rock, her point of steadfast faithfulness and upright morality whom she could lean on. Now that source of stability was rocking and she suffers a crisis of identity.

I don’t know about other readers, but I could readily identify with the theme of disappointment in one’s parents. I recently sat at endured something of a rant that my father that could only ever be described as homophobic. I disagree with him vehemently on the issue, although he doesn’t know this. I simply bite my tongue. There are times I’ve wanted to scream in his face and tell him how vile I find his hatred. In this book, Jean Louise does my shouting for me.

Just as To Kill A Mockingbird stayed with people for a long time, so will Go Set A Watchman, but for very different reasons.

Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Listen.

Billy Pilgrim is not your average character in a work of fiction.

This is one of those books that has eluded me for some time. Every time I’ve thought of getting round to reading it, something else has cropped up to take priority or I’ve developed a guilt complex over reading too many male authors. But this time, I was determined to get round to getting stuck into what is a relatively short work. If, like me, you like to know a tiny bit about a book before reading it, you will know that Slaughterhouse 5 is an anti-war book.

Upon reading the first chapter, I was rather wrong-footed. It is the first chapter and doesn’t come with a heading of ‘introduction’ or ‘foreword’ yet it is written wholly in the first person, who is evidently the author, talking about the book that is to follow. In it, he states that while the names have been changed, vignettes of the book remain true to his own experience. In particular focus is the fire bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. I had to wonder then if this really was a semi-biographical work or whether the introduction itself was a work of fiction, much like the introductions of “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project.

I’ve deliberately kept myself in ignorance whilst reading the book and whilst writing this review as to Vonnegut’s own history, lest that shatter the impression I got from the book, for surely that impression and what truth it conveys is of primary importance, while the rest is background. I can leave that background until after this review is posted online.

Billy Pilgrim is our central character, around whom the entire narrative is devoted and around whom all the characters come and go like waves on a beach. He is what the author describes as being ‘dislocated in time’. He doesn’t have a vessel in which to travel back and forth, he just closes his eyes in one period and wakes up in another, entirely out of his control. It removes the sense of ‘now’ from the novel, as in all times he speaks in the present tense. At one time he is a soldier, a prisoner of war, a veteran and a man about to die. He is also a person who has been abducted by aliens (called Trafalmadorians) who sit outside of time.

The main thought that went through my head as I read was the similarity in style and aim to that of Catch 22; a book that I have long hated as it’s a fantastic idea but very poorly executed. Here, there isn’t anything quite as strong in the ideas department but while Heller is a decidedly mediocre writer with an over-inflated reputation, Konnegut is a much better writer.

The other thought was “where is Dresden?” Not in the geographical sense, but in the fact that the book only makes a few references to it and it is not until right at the end that Billy finds himself in that city during the firebombing, as a prisoner of war who survives, unlike the many thousands of civilians who were murdered in what was probably the worst war crime the United Kingdom ever committed, yet like later war crimes, such as the war against Iraq, the United Kingdom was never prosecuted.

The whole sideline of the aliens I found a little distracting. They were never properly fleshed out and just drifted in and out of the story, which would have progressed (if that is the right word for a book with a non-linear timeline) just fine without them. What we are left with is a book that seems to be intentionally fractured. There are moments of sharp cynicism interspersed with periods of mundaneness, but even these are interesting and well-written. Do I regret having put off reading it for so long? I can’t say it blew me away like Love In The Time Cholera did, but I’m certainly glad I did read it and would recommend it to you if you’ve not read it already.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention; the work ends with an onomatopoeic bird song: Poo-tee-weet.

Book Review: Dear Life by Alice Munro

I first heard of Alice Munro when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. So poorly read am I that most winners are, to me, unheard of until they win. Having greatly enjoyed some of the work of previous winners, notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Galsworthy, I was looking forward to this collection of short stories.

This is one of Munro’s later works and the opening story gives the impression that it was written with a sense of a retrospective, but told with great gentleness.

The back cover of the book states: “Alice Munro captures the essence of life in her brilliant new collection of stories. Moments of change, chance encounters, the twist of fate that leads a person to a new way of thinking or being: the stories in Dear Life build to form a radiant, indelible portrait of just how dangerous and strange ordinary life can be.”

Some of the short stories are actually quite long, the 2nd story being some 36 pages. These make them just a little bit too long to do in a single commute (when I do most of my reading). Not wanting to split a story across journeys, I took to reading one per weekend, so it’s taken me some 3 months to get through this book, moving at a relatively slow pace. Because there is no overarching narrative, this has resulted in me getting to look in through a window for a short space of time every Sunday afternoon. I catch a glimpse of what is going and then move on.

For what one is left with is not a memory of each plot, each character, each decision that they make. What one is left with is a feeling.

It is interesting to note that some of the stories were first published in The New Yorker, which also published the wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. As I had read that so recently, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between them. For again, none of Munro’s characters stick with you for long after you’ve finished reading the stories. Even as I write this, I cannot think of more than a couple of names and very few of the plotlines. But this does not mean it is bad writing. If anything, it is quite the opposite, because what I have been left with is the impression that the stories have made, their footprints on the sand of my mind. They get you thinking as you read and it is those thoughts that linger with you. So I suspect many a reader will take away from this work something different, something unique to them and how they relate to Munro’s writing.

But in order to take that something away, you must first invest the time to read Munro, and that is something I would encourage you to do. Don’t expect her to blow you away with dazzling imagery or turns of phrase that make the heart ache, but let her abide with you for a season.

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Sometime last year, I can’t remember when, posters appeared all over the London Underground advertising this debut novel by Jessie Burton. The combination of the intriguing title and the eye-catching artwork created a mental image in my head that was highly appealing. So if the person who was responsible for the marketing of the book is reading this, well done. I only bought it, though, when I found myself in the very pokey bookshop of Primrose Hill. By this time, the book had started to win some praise and an award or two.

Set in the Netherlands in the late 17th century, the book gets off to a slightly unexpected start. Our main protagonist is Nella, an 18 year old woman who has recently married a trader roughly twice her age. Yet she seems not to really know him at all. She arrives at his house, greeted by his cold and unfriendly sister, Marin, and the servants of the household, Cornelia and Otto. It is a little while before we meet her husband, Johannes, but he remains a constant, yet distant figure throughout the book’s opening.

He attempts to make up for his relative absence by buying Nella a large kind of dollhouse. It is this that provides the impetus for the title of the novel, though it is curiously incidental to the overall plot. It’s something of a McGuffin, where the story would be little impacted if it were omitted. Because of this failure to meet expectations, I couldn’t like the book as much as I had hoped. Yet if one puts aside the missed expectations, then we do get the work of a very good storyteller setting out on the published stage of her writing career.

The real heart of the book consists of the interactions between the main characters, who are all well fleshed out and given their distinctive voices. Often written in dialogue, we see how Nella relates to Johannes, then how she relates to Marin, then how Marin relates to Cornelia, how Cornelia relates to Otto and so on. Through this method of storytelling, we build up the characterisation, while there are events which punctuate these and make for a very well paced novel.

I would warn potential readers that if it had the same kind of certification as a film, it would probably be a 15. There is some rather brutish homophobia as well as one or two gory scenes that are described in lurid detail.

It has also been noted that the book has divided opinion somewhat. I can see why some people may have been disappointed. I think it’s possibly because it’s not in the genre of fiction that people expect. Some have described it as an historical novel. While it’s certainly set in the past, the tone feels distinctly modern. Rather, this is a sensation novel, in the style of the late Victorian period. The closest in terms of the plot structure that I’ve reviewed on this blog before is Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies.

So would I recommend it? Yes, it is a good book. Is it deserving of the all the awards and high praise that is garnered? I’m not convinced. If in doubt, though, do read it. There are plenty more ordinary books out there that aren’t half as interesting.

Book Review: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Regular readers of this curious and ever-changing little blog may recall a little while ago that I went on a tour of the bookshops of London. One of those I visited was Perspephone Books, an outlet of a single publishing label whose aim it is to republish wrongfully-forgotten works, predominantly by female writers of the 20th century. It’s a wonderful aim and rather charming too. This was the book that I picked up while I was there.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote regular correspndences for the New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 40s. This is a compilation of short stories that is bookended by a pair of letters. Through fiction, Panter-Downes gives us a portrait of life in Britain during the war.

She steers away from actual conflict, though. There is little sign of the Axis powers, of bombs, bullets or Messerschmitts. It is much more about life (mostly rural and suburban, but some urban life is included) and the inconveniences that the war has caused to the everyday happenings. There are shadows of war and the odd gas mask about, but this speaks to some of the British values of the mid 20th century that were being fought for: community spirit, a good cup of tea, some peace & quiet or a nice view.

The odd thing about this is that so very few of the stories were particularly memorable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, so please allow me to explain. When reading, the details varied from story to story, but what one gets consistently, though evolving as time goes on, is a feeling, a sense of what is going on in wartime Britain. The characters are almost too well done; they are fairly boring, down-the-street people who have no outstanding qualities, are not afforded the opportunity to show their depth of character and to whom the strangeness of life, as caused by the war, is not an overwhelming burden against which they must battle. Rather, they just get on with things as best they can, while there are some disruptions to the kind of life they have been used to living.

It would do well, though, to look a little closer at the story which lends his title to this particular collection. Mrs. Craven is assumed title; it is not her real name. It is assumed, for who else would Mr. Craven be meeting for dinner on a regular basis but his wife? It could be seen as a kind of Brief Encounter type affair. The twist is though that Mr. Craven gets called up for service, so his mistress has no means of knowing how he is doing while she also has added anxiety knowing that his life is in danger. The only way she can find out is if she phones his wife…

Book Review: Cover Her Face by P.D. James

After asking for suggestions for what to read this year, one idea that cropped up was to read a murder mystery. It’s not my normal cup of tea so this was a step out of my comfort zone as far as fiction reading goes. Like my picking up of Iain Banks last year, P.D. James was another writer of whom I had only heard, but was reminded of when she died a few months ago.

While I have had an aversion to reading murder mysteries, I have seen quite a few adaptations, though I don’t recall seeing any that were taken from the works of P.D. James. Much more commonly adapted are the works of Agatha Christie. They tend to be extremely formulaic with a murder happening after some gathering where there is a disagreement and the location is isolated, with just a handful of possible suspects.

It is a formula that P.D. James sticks to rigorously here. We open with a very old fashioned dinner party. The one variation is that the people present at the dinner party aren’t the ones who end up in the house. So one may notice the presence of a vicar here but he is a fleeting character who doesn’t appear again (a violation of Chekhov’s Gun). I think what frustrated me was that in anticipation of a murder (for that is what the reader knows they will get, even before reading the first sentence) one tries to see in the characters who will be murdered and who the suspects are. So we instantly start with a slanted view that one doesn’t read any other kind of fiction – or at least none that I can think of readily as I write this at quarter to eleven in the evening.

As morning breaks, we discover that someone has been killed, which should come as no surprise. As an aside, it might be interesting to market a book as a murder mystery, where the mystery is when will it occur, but it never does. Shortly afterwards, we get to meet the detective who will solve the crime, Adam Dalgleish. He does not come across as a particularly multi-dimensional character. There is an attempt at giving him a backstory, but it feels rather forced and doesn’t sit within the narrative terribly well.

That said, the start of the investigation did keep me turning over the pages. Though it was relatively easy to put down, it wasn’t the kind of book that you get half way through and then peer at out of the corner of your eye, not really wanting to finish it. There were a number of irritating features. For one, there were characters (one important) who were introduced after the murder, so it seems that the idea of working it out for yourself is not on the cards. If there is to be any joy in a murder mystery, it is having all the facts available at an early stage that allow you to be able to work it out. The rest of the book may shed light on these pieces of evidence, making you think about them in new ways. This is not what P.D. James does, though.

So I was just wanting to get to the end in order to see who did it, but even when the murderer was revealed, there was no great line of reasoning. They just confessed under no real pressure. There was no incontrovertible evidence presented that compelled them to confess. All the way through the book, the sympathy for the victim seems sorely lacking. There is all the sense of a mystery, with one family in particular coming under a suspicion that no one dares speak aloud, but there is no sense of tragedy.

The proliferation of characters in a relatively short book means there is no space to give any of them depth. So as I write this review about a week after having finished it, not one of the characters really stuck in my mind. They are like the faces I see on the Underground every day; they may have some distinctive features, but not one of them lingers.

If there is anything to be said by way of mitigation, it is that this is the first of the Adam Dalgleish novels and so may well represent a writer who is aping those who have gone before her and who has not yet found her voice. I may come back and read a later novel in the series, but I’m no great hurry to do so.

Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s fair to say that this is a book with a bit of reputation. A reputation, that is, for being one of the finest books ever written. Certainly one of the best American works of fiction and a contender for holding the mythical title “The great American novel”. So it’s fair to say I approached with in an air of expectation. I wanted it to be good, I wanted to leave me thinking “wow”. I wanted to be able Hunter S Thompson’s obsession with it that made him type it out just so he could experience what it felt like to sit and write a great book.

Such approaches almost always end in disappointment. Too many times there have been books (particularly fiction) that have been hyped up, even whipped up into a kind of literary frenzy that one cannot help but be underwhelmed by it. Examples include David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. So, in contrast, while the praise of others led me to expect a great book my own experience led me to expect a let-down.

So which was it? The fact is, it was neither. It is fair to say that it didn’t love up to the hype but it wa far from being a bad book. It was really quite captivating and, being rather short, I finished it all too quickly.

The story is told in the first person from the perspective of Nick, though the identity of the narrator is actually of marginal consequence. It’s quite interesting that of the recent American fiction I’ve read, lots seem to be told in the first person. Other examples include H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, On The Road and To Kill A Mockingbird. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was in some way indicative of an individualistic mindset and the longing for a “hero” figure, the motivation behind the majority of comics – a genre in which I have little to no interest, but whose influence seeps into much of 21st century western culture.

The figure that is of interest is the eponymous Gatsby. He is introduced to us in a manner not wholly dissimilar to Boo Radley in the aforementioned comparison. Though if anything, Harper Lee may have been influenced by The Great Gatsby, not the other way round. But it was an interesting plot device to note. He appears as a shadowy figure, then as one about whom various rumours are told, but no one knows what is really true.

Eventually, he steps out into the light and we get to hear his voice, even if the various pieces of his life don’t seem to fit together properly. Is he a rich hedonist on the verge of self-destruction, a German WW1 fghter trying to make a new life for himself, an Oxford don or something else entirely?

One of the book’s strengths is its sense of time and place. Set mostly in the fictional borough of West Egg of New York, the reader is firmly impressed with the decadence of the age, coupled with the mob threat that lurks in the heart of the city, but which this outer borough is largely free from.

As the story progresses, the friendship between Nick and Gatsby grows, but other interactions are rather distracting for Gatsby who becomes increasingly obsessive and he begins to alienate others in his quest for Daisy, who he once knew years earlier, but where the circumstances of that encounter I shan’t spoil for you.

The book has rather a bewildering conclusion. I had to re-read it several times to try to work out what had happened. Again, I shan’t spoil it for you, but it is intended to be a dramatic finale, but what exactly happens to whom is hazy at best, so that while you think one thing has happened, a couple of pages later you find out something else has happened or a character you didn’t think was mixed up in it suddenly was. This rather marred it for me, as the need to go back a few pages is, to me, an indicator of poor writing, not of great storytelling.

As I read through it, I though that it would make a great filling in a trio of works that progress through the ages and cultures. So if you are going to read this, and I would recommend that you do, I would do so after The Forsyte Saga and before On The Road. It provides a wonderful link and the together make for a fascinating journey from the English aristocracy to the American beat generation.

I wouldn’t deny that it’s a really good novel, though I struggle to see why it evoked the reaction it did in Thompson. Perhaps it is one that I ought to return to sometime in the future.

Book Review: Silas Marner by George Eliot

I vaguely recall a tv adaptation I saw of this when I was a child, sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. I was not particularly interested in at the time and George Eliot has been just a name of an author that I was aware of, but I have not had any great yearning to read her works. I could name a few of her books in a pub quiz, but beyond that, I must confess my ignorance. She was recommended to me on the back of my fondness for Thomas Hardy as I was told by several people, “[If you like him, you’ll like her]”.

It has to be noted that this is a very short book; indeed, I am led to understand that it is the shortest of George Eliot’s works.

Our title character is introduced to us as a man who has been wronged. We get a short backstory telling of how, as a youthful man, he loved, was engaged, was tricked and who lost all that was important to him. Effectively driven from his home he made his living in a new place, yet as a consequence of the hurt he suffered he now lives alone, almost as a hermit. In some ways, I was reminded of myself.

The trouble that I found with the book is that the title character is so brilliantly written that all the other characters are muted by comparison. So when, in the middle third of the book, Silas Marner largely drops out of the picture as we get embroiled in what seems like a side plot, my interest began to dwindle greatly. It was no wonder that those who were made to read it between the ages of 13 & 16 found it tough-going. For though it is a short book, the hump in the middle makes it seem unduly long.

*spoiler warning*

It is not until we have the arrival of Eppie that the book sparks back to life again. After her mother dies, a young toddler finds her way to Silas’ home and makes her home in front of the fire. Silas then takes her into his home and raises her as if she were his own daughter. This part is undoubtedly the highlight of the book, as we finally get two characters of equal verve in a delightfully sweet interplay. There is probably no scene better than when, having taken on some parenting advice, he puts her in a coal hole for a few seconds as punishment (something probably frowned upon by most people today) and she thinks it’s utterly delightful.

The book climaxes with the revelation of all the interlinked stories, some of which were those that I confess rather passed me by. When all is clear and further moral choices are to be made, we hark back to earlier choices and see them through to their natural conclusions.

*end spoiler warning*

One of the over-arching ideas that Eliot has in mind is that of justice. One could almost say karma, though I’m not sure about how widespread the idea was in her day. But this is a sort of justice that is gilded with irony, which at times is all a little too obvious. For example, Eliot makes it quite blatant that Eppie’s golden hair is a token of the gold that Silas has stolen from him.

As an aside, it is sometimes interesting to note confluences between different books that I read at the same time. So while I was reading this, I was also going through Karl Marx’s Capital. In that work, he examines the rise of the factory and machinery, taking as one of his examples the unemployment of linen weavers as a result of automation. While this is not ostensibly a history book, one couldn’t help but think that Eliot’s portrayal of life in her time and place as inspired by what was observed. As such, the book gives a human insight into the economic phenomenon which Marx partially describes.

While it is an admirable book, with some great writing, I found it inconsistent. So I can’t say I found myself longing to read another of George Eliot’s works straight away. I had considered Middlemarch as a follow up but I may look elsewhere for my next lot of fiction reading.