Tag Archives: English literature

71. A convoluted tale of thieves, prostitutes and the Poor Law. Oh, & there’s also a kid named Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress is what you get when you (or Charles Dickens) start publishing your yet-to-be-completed novel in serial format, whilst working on another unfinished serial (known as the Pickwick Papers) that you started earlier: a bit of a mess, really.

But no, wait! I liked it. Kind of. Maybe. Well, Oliver Twist was better than Great Expectations in any case, with the latter leaving me with such, ironically, low expectations of Dickens’ other work, that… Never you mind, the point is this – Oliver Twist is like reading two different novels put together by some demented, and possibly blind, Dr Frankenstein of the 1837 literary world.

"Please, sir, I want some more"

The beginning of the story follows Oliver Twist, an orphan cruelly mistreated by authority figures/ the workhouse/ other children/ employers/ aliens/ criminals/ mobs/ the government (pick whichever takes your fancy). Characteristic of this half of the novel is the strong satirical tone Dickens employs in order to say, whilst simultaneously jumping up and down and frantically pointing at everything around him, “Look here! And here! See this! This is what your amendment to the Poor Law did! Basing government policy on  Bentham’s Utilitarianism is evil! Also, I hate fat people!”

It was at this point, however, that Dickens realised that there are limits to satire if one wishes to avoid repetition. Dickens’ response was to make the story take a decidedly different turn midway, by a) the clumsy removal of Oliver to some nice rich people’s house, and b) using secondary characters to shoulder the entirety of the plot.

This story shift, sadly, doesn’t stop the reader from beginning to smell the ending from several miles away (if you were wondering, it smells like the musty odour of hidden inheritance, the sweet aroma of coincidentally found long-lost relatives, and the saccharine scent of Good triumphing over Evil). Oh, I’m sorry, did I just give the ending away?

For some reason, I have never seen this movie.

Make no mistake, the second half of the novel was brilliant and vivid in a way that the caustic narrator from the first half could in no way emulate. Yet, even to Dickens’ most hardened reader – and you’d have to be hardened to make it past the first few chapters of Oliver Twist – the sheer brutality reserved for the gang of thieves in the last part of the book was surprising.

To be honest, I really couldn’t see what Fagin had done that was so bad – sure, he stole stuff, forced kids to become part of his gang of thieves, and occasionally executed a plan to bring other criminals to the gallows – but the hatred Dickens afforded this man, both in Fagin’s description and in the thief’s ultimate, bloodthirsty, demise, is at odds with Fagin’s actions. Now, Sikes I can see; a horrid man who beat everyone around him for little, if any, reason, culminating in the savage murder of Nancy-the-prostitute. He definitely deserved what he got. But Fagin? I don’t buy it.

Charles Dickens

Regardless of my preferences on who should and shouldn’t have a homicidal mob chasing after them (actually, I think beating and starving a bunch of kids to death who were placed under your care is a far worse crime than stealing handkerchieves, but there you have it), the latter half of the book was fast-paced, full of suspense, and masterfully written. Unlike its beginning.

So now comes the time when I need to decide on a tag for this review; did I love or hate Oliver Twist? Did Dickens succeed in turning the story around? To answer those questions, I had to answer one other, perhaps the most important one of them all – would I read it again? Nope. Putting the awkward plot execution and conflicting morality issues aside, the story itself was pretty depressing. I’m sorry Dickens, it’s not my cup of tea at all.

82. Cloud Atlas – a map to the the Faraway Tree

David Mitchell is an alien. That is the only explanation I can come up with for his chameleon-like writing, combined with the ability to make a plot apparent where the fleeting eye glimpses none. This may also account for Cloud Atlas’ lack of blurb, as well as my own pitiful attempts to review Mitchell’s work – it’s the mind-blocking powers, I tell you!

Cloud Atlas, written in 2004, is a map. No, stay with me. The book maps out the many methods humans use to prey on each other (and not just in the ‘I’m going to suck the juicy ligaments off your bones’ way). The ‘map’ is the six connected stories that the book is composed of.

At first you may be dubious or think that one of the stories will not interest you, but you are wrong.

Each tale can be relished alone. But I warn you: when you reach the final page you realise that whatever you’d supposedly ‘figured out’ halfway through Cloud Atlas was only the shadow of what the book was actually about. This stage may or may not be followed by poking mournfully at the book’s back cover in search for more. Or maybe that’s just me.

David Mitchell

Like I was saying, every story is written in a different genre. No, I mean actually written. Mitchell’s language, plot development – his very writing style - changes with every story. I imagine other authors (you know, the ones who churn out the same plot in the exact same way year after year) cower when they see Mitchell approaching.

Unlike those authors and their respective marketing departments, Mitchell does not pander to the dithering masses. He seemingly thrusts us smack-bang in the middle of a narrative, and doesn’t wait for us to figure out the details. I gathered information like it was the currency of the realm, and flipped frantically back and forth between stories to find that one line that will solve the mysteries of the universe. Erm, or at least the mysteries of Cloud Atlas.

While I’m here, I suppose it would be helpful to mention the plot (the lack of a blurb as well as the alien powers meant that I was going in blind, but you, my dearest reader, will not have to). So: the plot contains humour, sci-fi, corporate culture, detective-ness… Ok, I lied about being helpful, didn’t I?

Cloud Atlas spans time; from the 1850s, when some lawyer was crossing the Pacific, to a rambling fireside story spoken by an old bogan several generations after the apocalypse. My favourite part, “An Orison of Sonmi~451”,  was the transcript of an interview with a clone created specifically to work at a fast-food restaurant. The dystopian future of Somni was characterised by the country’s worship of the Beloved Chairman, clones as slaves, laws requiring citizens to spend a quota of money every week, and brand names in lieu of general nouns (I would compare this story very favourably with Nineteen-Eighty-Four).

For me, reading Cloud Atlas is akin to discovering that Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree is real. I felt like I had received a present that I hadn’t even known I’d wanted. I felt captivated. I felt intrigued. Like the lands on top of the clouds up the Faraway Tree, not all parts of the book are nice. You will see some things that you hadn’t previously wanted to see. You can be sure however, that these will be presented so exquisitely that the thought of looking away wouldn’t even enter your mind.

2. Jane Eyre. An Autobiography of the little novelist that could(n’t)

It took me over two weeks to finish Jane Eyre. Not because I was busy; rather, I had to frequently force my glazed eyes to once again focus on the drivel before me. I felt like a political prisoner – forced to eat dry, stale bread when I knew that I was a hero, dammit!

Charlotte Brontë‘s first (and unfortunately not last) novel was published in 1847 under the title of Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. For those playing along at home, a significantly large proportion of the book is based on Miss Brontë’s life. Oh, except for the whole rich-guy-falling-in-love-with-ugly-girl shtick. What did you say? That particular bit is quite important to the plot? Pfft. Let me prove to you how wrong you are.

Charlotte Brontë

The novel is like having your own personal preacher. He (let’s call him John) spends his time sitting on your shoulder and provides you with timely sermons as soon as you feel like having an ounce of fun. In a slightly nasal, monotone voice, the preacher attempts to dissuade me from (shock, horror!) spending far too long on putting together the perfect outfit (because really, Ilona, you should stop focusing on earthly delights and concentrate on worshipping God. Duh.) One day, I dared to have an independent thought – the priest popped out of nowhere, shook his little fist at me and told me I must save those heathen savages living in India. But there was this other time that I decided to keep a lunatic locked up in my house. Because, clearly, sending them off to an asylum would damage my reputation, but instead of being disapproving, little John gave me a thumbs up!

I digress. Really, the only way I can convey why the book offends my extremely refined taste is by quoting from it. It is the very last chapter, and Jane is trying to avoid talking about any sexytimes between her and Mr Rochester by droning on about what happened to all the other characters. It is here that she mentions Adèle, the child Jane used to tutor and the daughter of a French mistress:

“As she [Adèle] grew up, a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects; and when she left school, I found her a pleasing and obliging companion: docile, good-tempered, and well-principled.”

Pardon? I’m pretty sure I would much rather read a story about a heroine with French “defects” (outlined by Eyre/Brontë as being far too passionate about having fun, and having an aptitude for sparkly dresses) than a novel featuring a “docile” and “well-principled” governess. Side note: I’ve already read that lovely French story here.

Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester illustration in second edition

Perhaps it is not Miss Brontë’s fault. After all, her education specifically moulded her into the above characteristics; she was the daughter of a clergyman; and very much the product of her time. But then again, the writing is absolute crap (to put it bluntly). At least my previously most hated novel of all time, Great Expectations, had interesting characters and oh, I don’t know, emotive storytelling. Instead we’re subjected to such a flat recounting of events, that we don’t even notice the apparent fear Jane feels when Brontë throws in a bit of a “gothic theme” via the Madwoman in the Attic. Also, aside from said Madwoman, the plot is completely predictable (see here for other predictable features of the esteemed romance novel).

Oh ok, you are right – it is entirely, but for one smidgen, Miss Brontë’s fault this god-fearing gibberish was published. The last smidgen of blame I assign equally between her publisher, and the scores of people who continue to read this tripe and place it in on lists like 100 Books to Read Before You Die. Repeat after me: just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s good, yeah?

Finally for my last bit of criticism: it is quite apparent that this novel suffers from the dreaded Mary Sue symptom. The character of Jane Eyre is the author’s wish-fulfillment – the ‘rich-man-falling-in-love-with-Jane-as-opposed-to-that-beautiful-but-oh-so-bitchy-competitor’ cliche, Jane’s apparent lack of faults, and the ‘oh-an-uncle-i-never-heard-of-died-and-made-me-ridiculously-rich’ trope. Added to the fact that, essentially, the novel is an autobiography and, well, it is rather embarrassing to read. For the same reason, I’m pretty sure Stephanie Myer is Charlotte Brontë reincarnated.

In conclusion: every day I spent reading this book made Pride and Prejudice look that much the better.


72. Dracula – the most villainous villain that ever committed villainy

Before even opening the book, I figured that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had quite a few things going for it:

  • The subject matter is vampires, something that seems to have fascinated us humans for centuries
  • The presence of vampires corresponds with the presence of all sorts of sexual tension
  • The book was comprised entirely of diaries and letters, so the supposed element of reality can scare the masses
  • The vampires did not sparkle in the sun. They slept during the day. In a coffin. Kind of like the vampires in every scary vampire legend.

Where, then, did this 1897 novel go so wrong?

The answer, it seems, lies in the Harry Potter series. Clearly, the character of Professor Binns, Hogwarts’ History of Magic teacher, was based on Bram Stoker. Like the author, Binns managed to make the most bloodthirsty of tales (featuring both magical creatures and wars) put his students to sleep in class. He did this by droning on about useless details.

In fact, I can already imagine Edgar Allan Poe’s smug face as he closes Dracula and immediately sets on re-reading his own story about repressed sexuality: The Fall of the House of Usher. In direct contrast to Poe, who is legendary for ensuring that every single detail in his stories is important to the ending, Stoker’s modus operandi is including plenty of details just for the hell of it. For example, pasted in Mina’s journal was a newspaper clipping about some wild storm that went on for, no joke, half a chapter! Pages of nothing but “oh the wind was very windy, and there was some ship, and fishing people said that they wouldn’t sail until the storm had past.” Then when we finally get to the crux of the article, i.e. that there was no one on board but a very dead captain tied to his steering wheel by a rosary, I was in too much of a stupor to even raise an eyebrow.

Stoker also liked including long speeches by characters when, say, a single sentence would have sufficed. These speeches were how characters competed amongst themselves to be The Most Noble Character In the Book. I kept waiting for Dracula to bite off their heads or something, but no such luck (actually, Stoker insisted on writing the most anticlimactic death scene of a villain in the history of publishing).

The very respectable Bram Stoker

My copious amounts of research (reading The Introduction) has unearthed the (little?) known fact that the idea of Dracula came to Stoker in a dream, as jotted down on some fragment of paper:

“Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old Count interferes – rage & fury diabolical – this man belongs to me I want him.”

Sounds like a pretty intense dream, huh?

Unfortunately, I think Stoker left out all the interesting bits and instead wrote a totally bland story that tentatively hints at – then decidedly shies away from – anything frightening or “base”. The only tension, in fact, is the one that can be inferred after doing some (proper) research on Stoker – his original version of the character of Dracula, his questions over his own masculinity and sexuality, the way he attempted to hide his acquaintance with the scandalous Oscar Wilde, and his own fear of a dominating and prejudiced employer (one Henry Irving). Had Stoker tried a little less hard (for himself, if not for the general public) to fit into the narrow box of Victorian respectability, then I might have read a very different book. One in which the reader was actually scared of the vampire and his graphic crimes.

But then again, the long, painstakingly polite monologues, combined with the far too meticulous diaries/letters would have cancelled out even the most nefarious of Dracula’s evil deeds.

15. There’s no one quite like Rebecca

From the very first moment I opened Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, I was caught in the exquisite writing and tone of the book. Sinister and often macabre, reading the book felt like I was submerged in half-realities and daydreams, caught in the hot, oppressive summer air and waiting for the building thunderstorm to crack open the sky.

The plot is of a nameless narrator, young, shy, and self-effacing, that marries a rich and silently brooding (sorry, I mean grieving) widower to become the new Mrs de Winter. She moves into the famous Manderley estate and bitterly struggles to fulfil her expected role – that of Rebecca, Mr de Winter’s previous wife.

Rebecca’s ghost fills every inch of the house itself; its furniture, menus, gardens, and the very rituals expected of the new Mrs de Winter. The formidable housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, grimly enforces Rebecca’s set traditions, jealously preserving her memory with all the fervour of a grieving lover. The narrator, in turn, obsessively daydreams about Rebecca, hording any crumbs of information she can find about Rebecca’s personality, actions and mysterious death.

Keira Knightely and Jennifor Jason Leigh in a photoshoot for Vanity Fair. The theme is a re-imagining of Alfred Hitchcock's version of Rebecca.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

The first chapter describes (if such a word can encompass the sheer number of adjectives, similes and metaphors I read in that one chapter) the narrator revisiting her old house within a dream. Manderley is slowly, inexorably and menacingly being subsumed by nature. The flowers’, whose previous purpose had only been to sit still and look pretty (nature being the symbolism for women), had grown to monstrous heights and became angry slashes of colour in a war waged against the surrendered, crumbling house (a man-made structure that previously bent the natural gardens to its will). Barely before the book has begun, the ending has been given away: a woman has triumphed over an imposing and dominant man.

The second chapter introduces the narrator in her present condition – a quiet and tedious life lived in exile with her companion. She daren’t say anything to upset him and seemed resigned (as did he) to their painful existence, here and there living on a skerrick of a memory. The two chapters could not have been more different, and this difference is the very crux of the story.

The plot is executed brilliantly, but it wasn’t until I had finished reading that I could step away and look at the picture before me. What I read wasn’t a ghost story, thriller or romance (all labels that have previously been affixed to the novel), it was an angry exploration of power in a slyly subverted love story that become anything but.

(Edit on 16 May 2010: The novel uses intertextuality to reference Jane Eyre in quite a few plot elements. This choice by Daphne du Maurier provides even greater depth to her novel, although I wouldn’t recommend reading Jane Eyre just to see this in action. Wikipedia it instead.)