Sunday, 30 October 2011

On Reading: The Cat Sanctuary by Patrick Gale

I had the privilege of a tutorial with Patrick Gale a few years ago, while taking a Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford University, and I have always enjoyed his novels. He manages to combine both edginess and compassion and has a deep understanding of the true dynamics of family life. So when I was looking for a novel to take away to Sri Lanka recently I was happy to pick up this one, which I had not read before. It tells the story of two sisters, Judith and Deborah, who have grown apart as adults and don't seem to like each other very much. The accidental assassination of Deborah's husband and intervention of Judith's lover, Joanna, brings the two sisters back together as Deborah comes to stay temporarily with Judith and Joanna at their shared home in Cornwall. Judith is a successful novelist struggling with the writing of her latest novel and she also helps out at a local cat sanctuary run by the elderly and somewhat eccentric Esther Gammel. The sub-plot relating to Esther's life and the metaphor of the cat sanctuary itself form the backdrop to the working out of the complex relationship between the two sisters and their lovers: Judith's partner Joanna and the new man who comes into Deborah's life, Harvey Gummer. But it is the traumatic events in Judith and Deborah's shared childhood that are the cornerstone of the book. The chapters are structured in the alternating voices of the three main characters, which is especially effective as the plot unfolds. In another significant sub-plot Joanna teaches Deborah to drive and it is ultimately Joanna who is able to gently point out to Judith and Deborah that what happened to them when they were children was not their fault in any way. This novel is not an easy read but it is a book that is ultimately redemptive and shows a deep understanding of the psychological effects of a damaged childhood. This is one of Patrick Gale's great strengths and all the more so because this novel was written when he was only 28.

Monday, 24 October 2011

On Reading: Felix Holt The Radical by George Eliot

I came across a copy of this novel in a second hand bookshop recently. The media is currently full of stories about how the internet is changing our brain and affecting our ability to concentrate. It did take me a while to set my brain to work on the sentence construction and slow unfolding of a full-blooded nineteenth century novel - but it was well worth the effort.

Eliot's novel, published in 1866, is set in the aftermath of the first of the great electoral Reform Acts, in 1832. Somewhere on my shelves I also have a now very dusty thesis on this subject, written for my BA in Modern History at Manchester University over thirty years ago. I have a clear memory of my excitement, waiting for the Bristol County Record office to open on a crisp autumn morning, so that I could get at the archives and the tales of derring-do about corruption and rioting in the days before a secret ballot. I like the fact that Eliot, as a "woman novelist" is willing to tackle these great political and economic upheavals while at the same time focussing in on a small circle of characters who hold the story and the outcome of whose lives you very quickly come to care deeply about. There is a Dickensian element to the plot, dealing with inheritance and parentage and the machinations of lawyers. But Eliot has a deftness of touch and lacks the heavy-handedness I have always found in the more polemical works of Dickens. For me, she is worth the effort which I never seem able to make for him.

Taking time to get acquainted with this novel through its descriptive introduction is to slow oneself down to the pace of that world, one that was already thirty years in the past when Eliot was writing. She compares the glories of travel on the outside box of a stagecoach to the fast pace of train travel: "shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle". Having recently been "shot" between London and Colombo in our modern form of tube, the jet plane, I met an educated Sri Lankan woman, now resident in Australia, who was looking to provide her westernised sons with the opportunity to ride from the station in a bullock cart before this form of transport disappears for good. It is into this older, slower-paced world that Eliot gentle circles us, like a plane waiting to land at Heathrow.

On landing we find ourselves at Transome Court, where Mrs Transome, who has grown old holding the estate together in the face of an imbecile husband and elder son, awaits the return from the east of her younger son, Harold, in whom all her hopes for the future rest. But like many things long anticipated, Harold's return does not bring what she hopes. For one thing he has become a Radical and will stand for election as such and not as a Tory as his family and rank should dictate. For another, he fails to understand his mother's contribution during his absence and the complex relationship she has with the estate's lawyer Matthew Jermyn. Meanwhile, at Malthouse Yard in Treby Magna, seemingly a million miles away in rank, if not in distance, live the Reverend Rufus Lyon and his daughter Esther. He is the minister of the Independent Chapel and she is a young lady with a certain love of finery and an air about her that is somewhat "above her station" and outside of her father's strict religious principles. A neighbour of theirs, widowed Mrs Holt, also has a son recently returned who has brought disappointment to her. He is the eponymous Felix Holt, an "idealist working class Radical" who has rejected both the middle class life that his parents wanted for him and the business of quack medicine he has inherited from them. He wants to keep his mother through his honest work as a watch cleaner and repairer. She, rightly as it turns out, is terrified that this will not provide her with the financial security she needs for her old age. It is the interactions of this group of people, and a servant of the Transomes, Maurice Christian, the revelations of the truth about who they are and the real nature of their characters that carry the story through to its beautifully worked and woven structure and conclusion. I found myself longing for a "happy ending" and perhaps it does not give the plot away too much to say that this is provided although not without various twists and turns along the way.

The writer of the introduction to my Everyman's Edition, Professor F. R. Leavis, says that Felix,"(t)hough the titular hero of the book... is not representative of its strength." This is because he is not "real". Leavis also sees Rufus Lyon as "another of the book's liabilities" and Esther Lyon, although "not so complete a failure as Felix" is also flawed because Eliot didn't know whether she was creating Gwendolen Harleth (the heroine of Daniel Deronda) or Dorothea Brooke (the heroine of Middlemarch). Nevertheless, I found myself caught up in their story and there was a resonance for me about the complexity of the human character and its behaviour. We are none of us straightforwardly good or evil and we all have motives that to us at least seem "rational". I found the interchanges between Felix and Esther particularly moving as they explore whether either can or should transform in the way required to make a life together before circumstances and status drive them apart. But perhaps the most moving portrait is that of the elderly Mrs Transome, who in one sense sees her life's work realised but in another has all her hopes and dignity dashed away. Highly recommended brain-stimulating fireside reading.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

After Paradise

"From Paradise to Taprobane is forty leagues; there may be heard the sound of the Fountains of Paradise" (traditional saying quoted by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel The Fountains of Paradise).

The island has been called a tear-drop pearl in the Indian Ocean, a jewel, a miracle. It has had many names: Serendib, from which Hugh Walpole coined the word Serendipity; Seilan or Ceylon, which survived independence from the British and is still seen in many local company names and the famous tea; and Taprobane, known to Milton in his Paradise Regained: 'From India and the golden Chersoness/And utmost Indian Isle Taprobane' (Book IV). This paradise is now, officially, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

Of course there has not been much of paradise during decades of vicious civil war between the Sinhala majority and Tamil minority and terrorist activity by the Tamil Tigers, which straddled the period before and after the natural disaster of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Reminders of both were painfully obvious during my recent visit there. Tight security at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is the legacy of a suicide bombing in 1998; even while we were there a political assassination in Colombo followed local elections which saw sweeping gains for President Mahinda Rajapaska's United People's Freedom Alliance, which is seemingly reaping the benefits of bringing an end to the war. And from the memorial at the beachside in Yala National Park, where our guide told us he had seen the dead bodies of a group of Japanese tourists, to the destroyed buildings up the coastline around Galle, the physical evidence of the tsunami's devastation is all too apparent. It takes time for a country to heal. Reading Michael Ondaatje's novel Anil's Ghost as we travelled was a sombre reminder of what horrors the war had brought. And the aftermath of the tsunami is captured in a non-fictional account in Adele Barker's aptly named Not Quite Paradise.

But for the tourist in search of warmth and friendly hospitality, Sri Lanka is in fact a delight. From the regular curry meals provided on Sri Lankan airlines' flight via the Maldives to the high point of watching two leopards greet each other in Yala, this was a wonderful trip. We started off in the Cultural Triangle staying centrally at Habarana and visiting the key Buddhist and historical sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigirya, Dambulla and Kandy. Although these all have their points of interest, and are probably essential for a first time visitor to Sri Lanka, there was an element of duty about trudging around them in the heat of the day before having really acclimatised to the country. Only Mihintale had a sense of peacefulness and was free from controls, crowds and hawkers, just us and a family of grey langurs among the trees. Another time, or for visitors who can honestly say they have seen their share of historical artefacts on other travels, I would suggest taking a couple of days to relax first and starting the culture bit with perhaps just Dambulla and Kandy. Our guide suggested a morning visit to the Temple of the Tooth and, as it was a Saturday, this turned out to be an inspired choice. Crowds of locals were arriving for their morning puja carrying trays of brightly coloured lotus flowers and other offerings. It was a wonderful spectacle and, despite the tight security, a cheerful holiday atmosphere. We next had a two day stop in the hill country town of Nuwara Eliya, where most tourists stay for only one night en route for Horton Plains. This is a bastion of the former British Empire, in the heart of tea country, with green and white painted bungalows, the Hill Club and a golf course. At the Grand Hotel, tea is still served on the lawn and there is no air conditioning but a log fire in the bedrooms. It wasn't that cold when we were there and on Sunday we had a completely free day, joining the locals again to walk round Victoria Park and Gregory Lake, a short distance outside town. It was good to find that apart from friendly curiosity no-one was that interested in us and we could just enjoy strolling like everyone else who was picnicking and playing musical instruments. And so ended our first week in Paradise.

It was onto serious wildlife watching for our second week, with our specialist guide Sunil Alwis who ensured we didn't miss any new birds en route and engaged a really experienced jeep driver and birdwatcher for our two days in Yala and morning in Bundala National Parks. We were very lucky on both days in Yala. Our itinerary had been for a morning and evening jeep safari each day but Sunil suggested full days in the forest. This meant an early start at 5 am, driving before and after a packed breakfast, and then a siesta in the jeep before an afternoon drive. That first morning we saw a vast range of birds and animals before 9 o'clock: peacocks, pelicans, bee-eaters, hornbills, spotted deer, two wonderful golden jackals, sambhar, wild boar, lots of elephants, including a tusker (very rare in Sri Lanka), crocodiles and land monitors. It was a hot day and there was a gathering of activity around the waterholes. Breakfast was on the beach at the tsunami memorial - it felt strange to be picnicking there - and lunch was a welcome rest in the cool of the trees until the call came that there was news of a leopard and we were hurtling across the rutted tracks again. This proved to be a false alarm and in the end it was a relief to reach the end of the day with an ice-cold Coke and a bush toilet stop on the edge of the park.

The next day the park was very different. It was cooler and we saw very little at first. Then at one waterhole there was the briefest glimpse of a leopard. It was gone before I could see it and I had to accept that I'd missed my chance. Our lunch stop was back at the beach memorial and watching a group of Japanese tourists larking around where their compatriots had died was a reminder of the relentlessness of life; it doesn't stop for loss or oblivion but is constantly renewed and evolving. That's both its challenge and its excitement, I suppose, but it's certainly not comfortable at times.

The afternoon was dwindling away; a pleasant day in the park but for me a sense of something missed. Gradually, though, I was able to reach a sense of acceptance of the collective 'oneness' that had seen the leopard. It was getting on for 4pm and we were languidly watching some langurs when the Jeep driver started the engine and began driving very fast across the park. Nothing was said but we all knew it could only mean one thing. We were about the furthest point away that we could be, obviously, and on the 30 minute drive we linked up with other Jeeps until a small convoy had gathered back at the same waterhole we'd been at in the morning. And this time there was no missing it: a beautiful leopard strolling slowly along the shoreline on the opposite side of the water. At that moment I knew that I had not been reconciled to missing it earlier. Tears of joy welled up as I watched, the coat grey in silhouette, the delicate white bibs of its ears. A herd of spotted deer in the distance - was this the target? They seemed unconcerned. The leopard slinked its way in and out of the foliage - such superb camouflage. It gave one long cool turn of the head in our direction, across the water at the row of Jeeps and cameras. Ignoring the deer, it disappeared briefly among the trees. Then it seemed that it had turned and was walking the other way. Until we realised that this was a second animal and we had the delight of seeing the two leopards meet and greet each other before one settled down among the trees. Paradise regained, indeed.