Saturday, 22 February 2014

One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I have enjoyed Simon Sebag Montefiore's TV series, most recently the one on the history of Byzantium, but I have never read any of his books. So I was delighted to receive this one from the publisher and curious to find out if I would enjoy it.

It opens in the final months of the Second World War with the shooting of two teenage friends in Moscow. However, as one of the investigating policemen says, 'These aren't just any dead children.'  Their parents are high up in government, as are the parents of their friends. They belonged to a secret club called The Fatal Romantics Club, seeming innocent and childish, but suddenly under the glare of the investigation it becomes much more. The inquiry into the deaths becomes like a sinkhole opening up in the lives of everyone who knew this boy and girl. It gets bigger and bigger and more and more people are drawn in - friends, siblings, parents, teachers.

I thought that this book was so good at evoking the poisonous atmosphere of Stalinist Russia. It's not something I know much about, I recognised very few of the real life characters in it. Being close to Stalin was no guarantee of safety. He was so unstable and capricious that you could be his favourite one day and arrested the next. No-one could reveal the slightest suggestion of doubt in his leadership. No-one could be trusted, not even your own family. There was always someone prepared to betray, either through ambition, or fear, or because they genuinely believed in communism. I actually found some parts of it quite distressing to read.

In the afterword Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, "This is not a novel about power but about private life - above all, love." I much preferred the parts of the story about the politics to the parts about the love affairs. The horror of being caught in the web around Stalin with no way to escape, and no choice but to play the game to survive was so powerfully rendered. I also found the descriptions of how the mothers felt when their children were being arrested very powerful and moving. They were so terrified and so helpless.

I really enjoyed this, it's a proper page-turner and kept me gripped to the end. I will definitely read more by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Havisham by Ronald Frame

HavishamMiss Havisham is one of the most fascinating characters in literature. Devious, manipulative, perhaps
mad. A dreadful thing happened to her, but dreadful things do happen to people and for the most part they soldier on. Why was Miss Havisham so completely devastated that she chooses not to engage with the world, but to exist in a twilight state, in a moment frozen in time? This novel attempts to show how she came to be sitting in an ancient wedding dress, next to a mouldering wedding feast, loving no-one and no-one loving her.

Ronald Frame shows Catherine Havisham as the indulged only child of a successful brewer. Her mother died when Catherine was born and her father is busy with the business. Catherine is left a lot of the time to her own devices.

My father must have supposed that no other child could have had a happier time of it than I did. He showered me with gifts, which he didn't consider treats but things I had a perfect right to enjoy. But even amplitude and generosity pall. When I was by myself, I had a finite amount of imagination to help me play; when another child was brought along, I became possessive, only because I was afraid of having to reveal my embarrassment at owning so much.

Her father wants her to move up in the world and educates her as such. She is outwardly worldly, but because of her secluded childhood has very little understanding of other people's feelings and motives.

There are tragic hints of what is to come; as a young woman she acts in tableaus, staged scenes just as her wedding day becomes like a stage set. When she meets Compeyson I was hoping against hope that this time it would turn out differently! But of course it didn't.

The story is narrated by Miss Havisham at the end of her life. She is quite honest with herself, though perhaps not quite so honest to Pip or Estella. Jaggers the lawyer is the only one with whom she seems to be able to let down her guard. It is a tragic story, she wasn't a bad person but there was nobody in her whole life who she could trust (actually that's not quite true but she didn't recognise the worth of that person). Her pampered life and her lack of imagination didn't allow her to expect that her life would be anything other than gilded and glowing. When it didn't turn out that way she didn't have the resources to deal with it.