Tag Archives: Orange Prize Longlist

Orange Reading: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles - Madeline MillerThe Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury, 2011

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The Iliad and The Odyssey have been sitting on my shelf for a while now. I am ashamed to say that I never really had much interest in reading them. I know. Homer! First historian! One of those “stories of stories”! And yet.. nope, never really interested me.

The Song of Achilles, however? Why should not I be interested? It won this year’s Orange Prize, it is universally loved by bloggers.. I could not wait until my hold would finally come in at the library.

Can I give you the short version? I loved this. I started reading. I could hardly put it down. I stayed up ’till far past midnight in order to know what would happen, how it would happen, even though I knew what would happen, even though I knew we would irrevocably come to that tragic ending. And yet, I loved every page along the way of getting to that end. I loved the end, even though it had me in tears.

If ever a book had me interested in reading the original, it is this one, for this version of Achilles and Patroclus’ life before and during the Trojan war is stellar.

There is just one question that has been nagging at me these past weeks months since finishing the book. Yes, it was definitely one of the top reads of this year, and apparently I am not alone given the praise it receives everywhere.. But I often find that books like this one, that have me feverishly obsessed with the characters and the story and the prose, have me questioning if, when I return to it one day, I will find it as good and as beautiful. Because stories like this can feel a little bit like a dream, that is too easily popped. I hope that won’t turn out to be the case for The Song of Achilles. I even feel a little guilty for daring to mention it.

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Orange Reading: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter - Emma DonoghueThe Sealed Letter – Emma Donoghue
Picador, 2012

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Miss Emily “Fido” Faithfull is a spinster who is active in the women’s movement and runs her own printing house. One day, she meets Helen Codrington on the streets. They haven’t seen each other for seven years, but they used to be friends. Helen Codrington is unhappily married to an admiral and Fido used to be her bosom friend. Now, they seek to reestablish their friendship.

Or so you think for the first hundred pages. But the reader soon learns that Helen has an affair with a young officer. Fido, who is businesslike in her work, appears to be naive when it comes to social affairs, and unwittingly helps her friend in continuing the affair. That is, until Helen’s husband finds out and files for divorce. The divorce trial soon escalates and the social ties between Helen, Fido, and Helen’s husband begin to unravel as the trial takes a scandalous turn through the appearance of a mysterious sealed letter.

This was my very first experience with Emma Donoghue’s fiction, and even though the experience was not perfect, I very much enjoyed The Sealed Letter.

During the first hundred pages or so I was captured by the world and characters as described by Donoghue. Fido in particular captivated me, with her fictionalised insight into the women’s movement and the way in which she both challenged the position of women, but also reiterates many of the presuppositions about the differences between men and women prevalent at the time. And there were many passages I noted down for her interesting reflections on, and discussions with, her fellow members of the women’s movement or Helen about the position of women.

“[T]wo years later, when Fido broke it to them that she had taken up the cause of rights for women, and was setting up a printing house as a demonstration of female capacity for skilled labour, Mrs. Faithfull got two red spots very high in her cheeks and asked whether it wasn’t generally held that a lady who engaged in trade, even with the highest motives, lost caste. Fido countered with some sharp remarks about idle femininity that make her wince to remember, especially considering that her mother has never known an idle hour in her life.

What about those days? Do the Faithfulls consider the youngest daughter of their eight to be still a lady? Best not to ask. Officially they condone her life in the capital – your mission, her mother called it once, which must be how she describes it to her neighbours in Surrey – but Fido can sense the strain. They’d so much rather she were settled in some country town and producing a child a year, like her sisters.”

Fido was definitely the most interesting character in the novel. And I often felt that Donoghue was most sympathetic to her, even though she mentions in an interview at the end of The Sealed Letter that she meant for the reader to make up his or her own mind about the people involved in the divorce case. There is something to be said for that as your perception of Helen, her husband, and perhaps even Fido, changes throughout the novel, leaving you with such questions as what their relationships were really like, and who benefitted from whom, and why. I’d love to discuss this with those who have read the novel, but I’m trying not to give too much away here to those who haven’t read it yet.

Even though the characterisation and the relationship between the characters is interesting, I felt it didn’t hold up for the length of the novel. There were moments when the story dragged a little. I could not help but compare The Sealed Letter to Harris’ Gillespie and I, which was also longlisted for the Orange Prize this year. In some ways, the novels are comparable; they offer rich and detailed historical settings, with characters of which your perception changes at different moments throughout the narratives. I personally felt that Harris was more succesful at creating an intriguing main character and at keeping up the pace of the story. At the same time I felt that in Fido Donoghue has created a character that felt more realistic, somehow. Harriet Baxter might be the more entertaining, but her sentiments also felt more modernised for the contemporary reader.

There is another book that came to mind while reading The Sealed Letter: Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Both recount an actual divorce trial which revolves around the alleged adultery of the wife. Almost from the beginning of The Sealed Letter, I felt that this might be read as the fictionalised counterpart to Summerscale’s book. So I was pleasantly surprised to see the actual Robinson trial mentioned. It’s interesting how Helen refers to one of the things that is at the heart of Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace in her discussion with her solicitor:

The elderly solicitor holds up his hand. “Of course, but have the goodness to hear me out. In this way your gaddings about in Malta, your so-called confession to Mrs. Watson, even your appointments book and your letter to Anderson could all be explained away as mere… fantasy.”

“Madness,” she correct him.

“There’s a recent precedent,” he tells her with dry enthusiasm. “A Mrs. Robinson: her husband’s counsel produced a very frank diary in which she recorded her adultery with a hydropathic physician – but her side claimed that she’d made it all up, being afflicted with erotomania brought on by measures to prevent conception! The jurymen preferred to believe her unbalanced rather than immoral, so Mr. Robinson was denied his divorce.”

“What cretins!”

Few shrugs. “Englishmen are reluctant to knock ladies off their pedestals.”

“If Hawkins proves me mentally unhinged,” Helen snaps, “am I right in thinking my husband could have me confined in a private asylum for the rest of my days?”

“Oh, come, the chance of such an eventuality-“

“Why risk it? And why humiliate me still further?” The words burst out of her. “I’d rather every paper in the country called me a harlot than a pathetic lunatic who only imagines that men desire her.”

As always – it seems – I was left with some questions as to the characterisations in the novel. What does it say that the adulterous wife is mostly portrayed as cunning, while the spinster is held to be innocent and naive? This is why I find the reveal at the very end of the novel so interesting, because, with that, Donoghue manages to remain true to the historical setting and the prevalent notions, but also subtly manages to challenge it. Heh, so much to discuss!

My reaction to The Sealed Letter was somewhat mixed though mostly positive. I loved it at first, and then it started to drag a little. Only towards the end did it manage to enchant me again like it had at the beginning, even though there were enough passages of interest in the middle.

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If you are curious about other Orange Prize longlisted, shortlisted, and prize winning novels, be sure to check out Mrstreme Orange July themed reading month.

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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I – Jane Harris
Faber and Faber, 2011

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Gillespie and I is narrated by Harriet Baxter, who lives in London, with a maid for company, and in 1833 is writing an account of her friendship with Ned Gillespie and his family. Ned Gillespie, according to Harriet, is an “artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate.” The story interchanges between 1933, at the time in Harriet’s life when she is writing her account, and 1888-1890, which is the time during which the story Harriet has to tell plays out.

From the very first, the reader becomes aware that this account of Harriet’s friendship with Ned Gillespie will not just be the story of a happy acquaintance. Already in the preface, Harriet hints towards tragedy and unravelling of relationships, and Ned eventually burning most of his paintings and taking his own life. These are not spoilers, since they are mentioned in the second page of the book. With that information starts a story that makes you curious about what happened between Harriet and Ned Gillespie, and why exactly she wants to tell it to us. Sadly, there is very little I can say beyond revealing these same things that Harriet tells us in the preface, because this is a story with a lot of twist and turns that is all too easily spoiled.

Harriet is a charming and fascinating character. She comes across as friendly, but can also be scoffing and sarcastic, often to the point of making me laugh. What helped was that Harriet makes astute observations on society’s expectations of women, and then ridicules them.

“‘Pteriodomania!’ exclaimed Peden. ‘That dreaded disease.’ He angled his body away from me, in order to address me, sideways, over his shoulder. ‘It seems that when you ladies are weary of novels and gossip and crochet, you find much entertainment in ferns. No doubt you preside over a fern collection, Miss Baxter?’

‘Sadly, no!’ I replied. ‘What with all my novels and gossip and crochet, there’s no time left over for ferns.’
The astute reader will, of course, realise that I was employing irony; but Mr Peden gave a self-satisfied nod – as though I had proven his point.”

Pretty soon, as a reader, you start noticing that not all of what Harriet tells you is as straightforward as it might appear on first glance. There are hints towards other things that are going on. Jane Harris really is masterful at building suspense around certain events in the book. She drops obvious and not so obvious hints, making me feel that there were things I considered or even thought of before, only to turn them around a little once you approach the unveiling of them. From the middle of the book onwards, after a huge bomb drops on you as a reader, all you can do is wonder at what is truth and what is not, casting doubt on anything and everyone you have been told about, and struggling with your sympathy and doubts about Harriet. To what extent is Harriet an unreliable narrator? The strength of Gillespie and I is, I think, that despite establishing Harriet as an unreliable narrator, the reader is left to guess as to what extent she is, leaving both the option to disregard anything she says, and to feel an sympathise with her, open. One of the characters in the book describes my thoughts during the second half of the book perfectly, right up to the very end of Gillespie and I:

“I’m not sure what to think anymore. I don’t know what to think about anything or anyone, including Harriet Baxter.”

I very much enjoyed Gillespie and I. There is an addictive quality to Harris’ storytelling. Furthermore, she manages to transport the reader to nineteenth century Glasgow with her atmospheric prose. Wanting to know what had happened and how it would all be resolved meant that I read this book almost non-stop for two days. Perhaps this is why, towards the end of the book, I felt more of a dread in picking the book up. I felt that the second half, as most of it happens in one setting, did not hold as much spark as the first half. However, while actually reading those pages, I kept on being surprised and asking questions. I’m not sure this will end up to be my absolute favourite of the year. Actually, I do not think it will. I do know that I will be reflecting back on Harriet and Ned’s story for a long time to come.

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Orange Reading: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule – Jaimy Gordon
Quercus, 2011

Review copy from the publisher
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Lord of Misrule is a book about horse racing. More precisely, it is the story of Tommy and his girlfriend Maggie. Tommy aims to win a lot of money through entering his unknown horses in races and getting out of the circuit before anyone has the chance to claim one of his horses. But as happens so often with plans, people begin to notice him from the very first. Cue a story about the developments at one race track, seen through the eyes of several characters, including Tommy, Maggie, and a caretaker called Medicine Ed.

In Lord of Misrule Jaimy Gordon very much portrays the seedy side of horse racing. There is a reason Medicine Ed has that nickname, for example. There are horses who are obviously too old to be running being raced to the death, there is gambling, and there are power struggles that come with a scene that involved drugs and betting. Add to that Tommy and Maggie’s somewhat perverse sex life and you may understand that this novel very much plays to the intrigue that comes with feeling a slight repulsion to the setting and characters portrayed.

I admit, this was not exactly my kind of book. I know very little, or better yet nothing, about horse racing. Jaimy Gordon does explain the process of racing, betting, and claiming in a manner that helped me understand it a little. However, I still felt bewildered after reading the first 50 pages or so. Combined with my unfamiliarity with this world, the book heavily leans on the use of dialect and slang, slightly different for every character introduced, but all of it difficult to read and understand at first. I needed those first 50 pages to come to grips with what the hell was going on, and at the same time, the first 50 pages were the hardest to get through. Once I got past that point, the story became a little easier for me to follow, so did the prose, and whereas I was reluctant to continue reading before, I now felt quite certain I would make it to the end of the novel.

I did not enjoy Lord of Misrule exactly, but I did not, for the most part, dislike it either. I can appreciate what Jaimy Gordon has done, and how the prose and the somewhat alien setting are cleverly used in the novel. I actually enjoyed how the novel is set up around four races with four horses, and how each horse and race is hinted at in the previous parts of the novel. But overall, this was simply not my kind of novel. I particularly regret not feeling much sympathy for any of the characters, I simply did not care very much about what happened to them, not even to Ed or Maggie. Perhaps the seedy side of life mostly scares and repulses me too much to muster the required curiosity about it that pulls this book along.

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Orange Reading: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

state of wonder - ann patchettState of Wonder – Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 2011.
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Dr. Swenson has been working on a particular drug in the Amazon jungle for years now, but the pharmaceutical company that finances the development of the drug starts to become impatient, especially as Annick Swenson is reluctant to share any information with the company, and refuses to call, only writing sporadic letters to keep them up to date. In order to get a better overview of the situation, the company sends Dr. Marina Singh to the amazon to check on Dr. Swenson’s progress. Marina is not the first scientist to visit the Lakashi village where Annick works. Before her trip, Marina’s research partner Anders Eckman traveled to Swenson’s jungle laboratory, and it is a letter announcing his death from fever that impels Marina to take the trip. Not only is Marina nervous about travelling the amazon with its tropical climate, insects, and fevers, she’s also reluctant to meet Annick Swenson again, who used to be her mentor when she trained as a doctor.

While I enjoyed State of Wonder a lot, I find I have very little to say about it. Patchett’s prose is gentle and vivid and pulls you right into the story, when it loses its gentler aspects and becomes more insistent you read on. However, this is not a high-speed-rollercoaster read, instead, it takes its time to develop the story, only having you realise that you care about the characters a lot more than you suspected halfway through. It has some of the meandering qualities I also loved in Island of Wings.But Patchett’s prose is not the only quality that made this such an enjoyable read for me. Her characterisation is spot on. I loved how she gives you the time to truly get to know all the shades of Marina’s character, how she manages to make Anders such a vivid person seen through the eyes of those that remember him after his death, how she subtly makes the reader shift sympathies from Dr. Fox to Dr. Swenson and yet keeps both of them in their role of somewhat mysterious lone persons.

I would not say this book is realistic per se, though Ann Patchett manages to pull you along and make it all feel very natural. There are hints of the absurd: catching a huge snake with bare hands, for example. And then there’s the ending that might seem a little bit too neatly patched up even if some aspects remain open-ended.

The only real problem I had with this novel is something Jenny mentioned in her post too: the portrayal of the Lakashi in the novel. This tribe is described as a group, often functioning as a collective on a seemingly automatic pilot. They receive very little agency in the books, certainly not as individuals, except when they are either grooming Marina, or stealing her luggage. On top of that, one of the neighbouring tribes are referred to as cannibals. There’s just something that made me feel uncomfortable about all of it.

What was interesting was that Marina, Annick Swenson, and everyone who they work with at the Lakashi village, constantly debate the consequences of their interactions with the tribe. There’s a lot of discussion on the ethics of interfering in indigenous lifestyles, their medical care, their habits, etcetera. These issues are brought up on several occasions in the story in such a manner that you experience the shifts that occur in Marina and Annick’s viewpoints in particular, as different circumstances ask for different responses from both of them.

One more thing I just have to mention: I loved how so much of the cast of this book is made up of prominent female scientists.

I very much enjoyed my first experience with Ann Patchett. While I would not say the book was perfect, I do rate it among my four-five stars reads of this year. And I rather expect that this one will end up on the shortlist for the Orange Prize.

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