Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky: “When hell is the suffering of being unable to love”

Crime and Punishment: Penguin Classics (Penguin Translated Texts) by [Dostoevsky, Fyodor]

As is too widely known to be a spoiler, Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student living in the teeming squalor of 1860s St Petersburg, convinces himself that, as men like Napoleon are revered despite the large amount of bloodshed they have caused, he would be morally justified in murdering an unpleasant old money-lender and stealing from her to pay for his education, to relieve his mother and sister of the burden of supporting him and to spend on deserving needy people and good causes. Needless to say, he botches both the murder and the theft, only to be haunted by violent flashbacks and delusions together with the fear of being caught, compounded by his compulsion to confess his crime to others, not out of remorse, but in disgust over his failure as a self-defined “superior” being to carry out the plan effectively. Immature and arrogant, his mind addled by reading too many theories, Raskolnikov is not easy to like.

Apart from being an in-depth “psychological record of a crime” which must have been ground-breaking when first published in instalments in 1868 , this novel is also an indictment of appalling social conditions, more hard-hitting even than Dickens. It continually slips into farcical parodies of the social attitudes and beliefs of the day, including the dissent to which Dostoevsky himself was drawn as a youth. Raskolnikov’s very name means “dissenter” – from the “normal” way of seeing the world.

A recurring theme is the arbitrary, contradictory nature of morality itself. For instance, Raskolnikov is appalled by the debauched behaviour of Arkady Svidrigailov, who has designs on his sister, but this rogue uses the money obtained from the wife he himself may have murdered, to provide substantial help for a number of needy people, something which Raskolnikov has failed to achieve. Raskolnikov’s “dead soul” is ultimately brought to life by the love of the almost saintly Sonya, who nevertheless consented to work as a prostitute to support her penniless family.

I was initially disappointed by the novel’s style which seems quite stilted and artificial. Yet lengthy monologues to provide an “information dump” or develop an argument were a feature of C19 novels. I could understand that Raskolnikov’s “stream of consciousness rants” might be justified as conveying a sense of his mental confusion and agitation. Yet other characters indulge in them as well, perhaps because the male characters are often drunk and the women hysterical and overwrought.

Finding it hard to decide how much my dissatisfaction was due to the shortcomings of the translation, I tried four, ending with the widely praised Penguin translation by Oliver Ready, and thought that Constant Garnett’s early version also looks good , yet all of them jarred or seemed unnatural at times. This made me wonder whether the challenge of translating into another language, even the vastly flexible and nuanced English, from Russian without losing too much of its essence is just too great.

It’s quite interesting to compare translations. For instance, Oliver Ready has the thirty-five year old Investigator Porfiry Petrovich frequently call twenty-three year old Raskolnikov “father” which is explained somewhere in the notes, but sounds odd. In Pevear’s translation, this becomes “old boy” which is marginally easier for an English-speaking reader to accept. If we could ever agree, an amalgam of translations could be superb!

It’s a matter of taste, but despite grasping the ideas Dostoevsky was seeking to develop, I find the work over-emotional, and too filled with jumbled thoughts of the type one might have in reality, but seek a writer who can unravel them. Bleaker and edgier, less sentimental than Dickens, it is on a higher plane of complexity.

I agree with a reviewer who liked the beginning and end the best. The opening part leading to the dreadful crime is focused, the writing in the epilogue has been described as “delicate” and is marked by a clarity and lucidity like the calm after a storm. In-between is a morass of digressions and ramblings punctuated by a few strong scenes of high drama or tension such as when the cunning Chief Investigator Porfiry Petrovich is playing a cat-and-mouse psychological game with the overwrought Raskolnikov, which would not be amiss in a modern detective yarn, or the confrontation near the end between Raskolnikov’s sister Avdotya, who shows a lot more sense than he does, and the manipulative villain Svidrigailov whose one true emotion is his love for her.

What interests me most about the novel is the extent to which it reflects the life of the author himself and the history of the period. I am sure that the more one knows about this, the greater one’s appreciation of the book. Dostoevsky must have been influenced through being sentenced to death by firing squad as a young man for some, to our minds, relatively minor revolt against the censorship of the day, only to be reprieved literally at the last minute, subsequently serving five years hard labour in a Siberian prison.

This should probably be read at least twice: the first time on a wave of momentum to see what happens, the second time more slowly, checking on, say, the copious notes accompanying the Oliver Ready translation.

“Silver” by Chris Hammer: a twist too many in the swamps and potions of greed, guilt and revenge?

Silver: Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month by [Hammer, Chris]

Having immersed himself in a book on the complex crimes he helped to solve in the outback town of Riversend, covered in the freestanding bestseller “Scrublands”, hard-bitten former foreign correspondent Martin Scarsden returns after an absence of more than twenty years to his home town of Silver on the east coast of Australia, where his new partner has inherited a dilapidated house in one of the many coincidences on which the novel’s convoluted plot tends to rely.

Gradually, details emerge of the family tragedy which drove Martin to leave Silver at the earliest opportunity, although some missing pieces of the puzzle are not even revealed to him until the final pages. He barely sets foot in town before being diverted from reflecting on the past by the shocking discovery of the body of his close friend from childhood, Jaspar Speight, a local estate agent, found lying in the house Martin’s partner has been renting, making her a prime suspect. In his determination to prove her innocence, Martin becomes involved in the local conflict between speculators out to make money and the native people and visitors to a spiritual retreat wishing to be left free to enjoy the natural beauty of the surf-washed shore where kangaroos graze. In the mesh of sub-plots, there are also recurring themes of revenge and guilt.

As in “Scrublands”, author Chris Hammer is strong on sense of place: “the spotted gums and cabbage tree ferns, the palm trees and staghorns and the cedars trailing vines, bellbirds chiming” in the lingering summer of the subtropical north coast of New South Wales; “the tugging dryness of a drought-ravaged inland left the far side of the coastal plain” –all quite evocative in view of the recent devastating Australian wildfires. He also captures the ambience of a somewhat run-down town with the potential for development, but at the risk of destroying local communities and damaging the environment.

Although the style can be slick and corny at times, Hammer is good at developing Martin’s character to show his changing moods, with his understandable introspection, flashbacks of nostalgia for the past mixed with bitterness, but also his compulsive drive to “get a scoop” even at the cost of appearing ruthless and insensitive (“Seven people dead. And you’re smiling!”), pursuing sometimes dubious means without hesitation in order to achieve an end which is justified if the guilty are caught.

The author puts his long experience as a journalist to good use to show how reporters vie, even within a paper, to be the first get an article published, how they live with the constant fear that a story will turn out to be false, and the risk of losing the trust of colleagues on whom they rely, may even be fired, if they fail to reveal a juicy fact in an attempt to shield someone they love.

Despite moments of high drama, there is too much repetition of banal detail apart from the denouement which ironically seems overly abrupt. The numerous plot twists are often unconvincing or rather confused. The upshot is a novel that alternates oddly between being a page turner and a bit tedious. It did not grip me as much as “Scrublands” which I would recommend reading first (although on reflection this has the same strengths and flaws, so perhaps it was the novelty that hooked me), nor in quite the same league as Jane Harper’s novels also set in Australia.

“Good Morning Midnight” by Jean Rhys – looking for love

It’s the 1930s, and the narrator who calls herself Sasha, no longer young, has been lent money by a woman friend to leave London and attempt a fresh start in Paris. Since it is clear from the outset that she is depressed, lonely and alcoholic, only feeling lucky “ when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane”, it seems inevitable that this will not end well.

Gradually, through fragmented memories, we learn of the past love affair which broke her heart, but not of underlying explanations for her inability to copy with life and to “be like other people”, her fear and sense of rejection and ultimate lack of desire to go on living. This novel seems to be to some extent autobiographical, most particularly in describing Sasha’s perceptions and emotions, in various stages of drunkenness, rarely sober. Despite my alternating feelings of depression and irritation over Sasha’s passivity and destructive self-absorption, the writing exerted a remarkable power enabling me to relate to a state of mind I rarely share to such a degree, and conveying the poignancy of Sasha’s situation.

Jean Rhys seems to have been preoccupied with the idea of a woman adrift in an uncaring Paris, despite its romantic reputation, continually subjecting herself to casual misuse and abuse by men. This novel is the last of four on this subject, with the oldest variation on the theme in the form of Sasha.

I enjoyed the early flashback in which Sasha describes her brief stint working for a “dress-house”, a job gained as a favour. “Drugged” with boredom, she reflects on how successful the life-size dolls in the window would have been if real women: “satin skin, silk hair, velvet eyes, sawdust heart- all complete”, a sad comment on her experience of being casually objectified by men, a novel thought in the 1930s. This is followed by her growing sense of panic, induced by fear that the visiting English boss will see through her lack of qualifications for the job, her poor French. Ironically, she proceeds to make the very embarrassing error she fears through misunderstanding an instruction because of his dire accent.

Even in the bleakest moments of this sad novel, Jean Rhys creates a strong sense of place in Paris, and lightens the scene with acute observations, acerbic comments and a keen sense of tragi-comedy. Apparently, when the book was published, critics praised its style but felt it was too depressing to succeed. This drove the author into an absence from the writing scene for years, until the request to turn the book into a play restored her confidence and triggered her best-known and highly regarded novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea”, drawing on her own experience of being brought up in the West Indies, the daughter of a white Creole mother.

The impressionistic style and structure of “Good Morning Midnight” must have seemed quite original when first written. I wished it could have been applied to a more engaging plot, although I can see that it is an achievement to capture a state of mind so well. I was also struck by some striking, poetic expressions of everyday observations.

“There is a wind and the flowers on the window-sill, and their shadows on the (drawn) curtains are waving. Like swans dipping their beaks in water. Like the incalculable raising its head, uselessly and wildly, for one moment before it sinks down, into the darkness. Like skulls on long, thin necks. Plunging wildly when the wind blows, to the end of the curtain, which is their nothingness”.

The book’s title is culled from a poem by Emily Dickinson included below, which also seems to encapsulate Sasha’s position.

“Good Morning—Midnight—
I’m coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn’t want me—now—
So—Goodnight—Day!

I can look—can’t I—
When the East is Red?
The Hills—have a way—then—
That puts the Heart—abroad—

You—are not so fair—Midnight—
I chose—Day—
But—please take a little Girl—
He turned away!”

“Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor: all in one’s nature

When thirteen-year-old “Rebecca, or Becky or Bex” goes missing from the National Park (probably Peak District) village where her family has been staying, police, helicopters and volunteers are deployed to comb the area, with frogmen searching the nearby numbered reservoirs, all to no avail. Ordinary life goes on, but even more than a decade later people continue to speculate as to what may have befallen her, and the story of her disappearance is sufficiently well known for the young friends who knew her in the village to be quizzed, much to their discomfort, when they go off to university.

As I believe has been the case in his early novels, Jon McGregor seems less concerned with the conventional plot-line of revealing how and why a crime occurred, and more interested in the relationships between his characters, in this case so numerous that it repays the effort of making a note of them from the outset, since they will all reappear at some stage.

In a kind of low key but subtly gripping soap opera, laced with insights, inferences and flashes of humour, he portrays couples getting together, splitting up, sometimes reconciling, people gaining and losing their jobs, dealing with the problems life brings, struggling to communicate, finding themselves, or not. The village customs, farming and surroundings are described in minute detail, on one hand the man-made activities of quarrying and reservoir maintenance which change continually, but also the closely observed world of nature with its seasonal rhythms, as indicated by the continual repetition in the book, and the “red in tooth and claw” violence involving foxes and badgers which goes unpunished, in contrast to the human world where people can only escape justice by concealing it.

I’m not sure whether Jon McGregor spends a long time experiencing the natural world or has done a great deal of research, but there are many beautiful, poetic passages. “The sun didn’t set so much as drift into the distance, leaving a trail of midsummer light that seemed to linger until morning”. “A heron hoisted into the air, hauling up its heavy wings, and letting its feet trail out as it flew” and so on.

Some readers may find the repetition of activities and phrases unendurable, and on occasion I was irked by yet more springtails (insect-like organisms) burrowing into yet another piece of rotten wood, and the reference to yet another “well-dressing”, clearly a tradition that could not be allowed to lapse. But I could see that all this was deliberate and necessary to convey the reality of life as time passed, just as each short section had to be written without paragraphs or speech marks, to avoid disrupting the flow of one’s concentration.

Jon Mcgregor is also very skilful in sustaining the tension, and sense of anticipation. Every walk in the woods with Nelson the dog, or drop in the level of the reservoir, could reveal some vital piece of evidence about Becky, which could of course be tantalisingly missed, or even lead to discovery of a body. His insistence on ambiguity may be hard to accept, but is again an aspect of real life. It also allows the reader who “wants to know what happened” to speculate on the clues gleaned.

“The Lost Man” by Jane Harper: the sins of the father

Even a fit forty-year-old like Cameron Bright cannot survive long in the Australian outback without water. So why was his dehydrated body found nine kilometres from his abandoned car, well-stocked with food and water? And why should he choose a painful death at a site which in his youth he had made the subject of a prize-winning painting: the grave of the stockman who had met a similar fate in the wilderness? Why should a well-liked family man with two young daughters and a successful business, with so much to live for, commit suicide? His brother Nathan was much more likely to have done so, being more obviously “ a lost man” struggling with an unprofitable landholding and debts accumulated from an acrimonious divorce.

This gripping psychological drama gradually reveals the truth about Cameron’s death, together with reasons for the intense hostility towards Nathan in the tight-knit, inward-looking local community and the complex way in which the three Bright brothers, Cameron, Nathan and their much younger brother Bub have been damaged by their father’s brutality, and also their mother’s inability to protect them.

Jane Harris puts her past experience as a journalist to good effect, in handling an intriguing plot, developing rounded characters, all flawed yet mostly commanding sympathy, in the fascinating setting of the outback which she appears to know well, yet I believe in fact researched for the purpose of this book. So we learn how people have adapted to living in a harsh, even dangerous environment, to which they have become attached. They must leave a note of their whereabouts every time they travel any distance from home, and failure to comply with certain conventions of mutual support is regarded as akin to a criminal offence. Even the system of home schooling, learning on line with all its potential shortcomings for young, not particularly motivated children with hard-pressed parents, is given a mention.
My only mild criticism of this novel is that, after the unflinching realism of much of the book, the ending seems a little too suddenly bland and “happy ever after feel-good”, which many readers will of course prefer to a more ambiguous “literary” conclusion.

Having found all the author’s first three novels page turners with the potential to be made into films, this seems to me to be the best.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murato – relative normality

“relative normality”

Logical to a fault, as the other children weep over a dead bird, Keiko appals her mother by suggesting they take it home to cook for her father who has a penchant for eating small birds, grilled Japanese style. This is just one example of the possibly autistic behaviour which sets her apart from “normal people”.  As an adult, despite her university education, Keiko deals with her situation by working for eighteen years in a  clinically bland convenience store, where the rigid routine provides a clear framework to guide her actions, together with the speech patterns and fashion sense of her co-workers for her to imitate. When her small circle of acquaintances begin to criticise her for being unmarried, Keiko comes up with yet another solution which seems pragmatic to her but ludicrous to others.

Although promoted as “hilarious” and “funny”, this book  struck me as quite sad,  in showing how those who do not “fit in” may be  mocked and excluded.  Beneath its quirky approach there lies quite a subtle exposure of the arbitrary, even ludicrous, nature of much accepted “conventional” behaviour, into which people are led by the desire to conform or are conditioned to adopt by, for instance, the promotional offers in the convenience store. Since I believe that Japanese behaviour is more conformist and group-oriented than say, in Britain, a reader may fall into the trap of feeling a little superior, but on reflection, I suspect that  the truth revealed in this book can be universally applied, prompting each of us to question the norms of our own society.

Logical to a fault, as the other children weep over a dead bird, Keiko appals her mother by suggesting they take it home to cook for her father who has a penchant for eating small birds, grilled Japanese style. This is just one example of the possibly autistic behaviour which sets her apart from “normal people”.  As an adult, despite her university education, Keiko deals with her situation by working for eighteen years in a  clinically bland convenience store, where the rigid routine provides a clear framework to guide her actions, together with the speech patterns and fashion sense of her co-workers for her to imitate. When her small circle of acquaintances begin to criticise her for being unmarried, Keiko comes up with yet another solution which seems pragmatic to her but ludicrous to others.

Although promoted as “hilarious” and “funny”, this book  struck me as quite sad,  in showing how those who do not “fit in” may be  mocked and excluded.  Beneath its quirky approach there lies quite a subtle exposure of the arbitrary, even ludicrous, nature of much accepted “conventional” behaviour, into which people are led by the desire to conform or are conditioned to adopt by, for instance, the promotional offers in the convenience store. Since I believe that Japanese behaviour is more conformist and group-oriented than say, in Britain, a reader may fall into the trap of feeling a little superior, but on reflection, I suspect that  the truth revealed in this book can be universally applied, prompting each of us to question the norms of our own society.

Short, neatly plotted, this first person narration in an excellent English translation  proves more thought-provoking than I had expected.

“Mersault, contre-enquête” by Kamel Daoud – just existence. Translated as “The Mersault Investigation”

It is not an entirely original idea to reverse a situation found in the plot of a famous classic, as did Jean Rhys when she wrote “Wide Sargasso Sea” from the viewpoint of Mr Rochester’s wife Bella in “Jane Eyre”, before she married him and was incarcerated in his house as a lunatic.

In this novel, the Algerian author has focused on the younger brother of the anonymous Arab shot by the Frenchman Mersault in the disorienting, blinding sunlight over the shimmering sea off an Algiers beach in Camus’s exploration of absurdism in the context of a pointless murder.

Kamel Daoud portrays the victim’s brother whom he names Haroun, to be found, several decades after the shooting, reminiscing in a local bar to the visitor from France who has come to probe him about the murdered Arab in the novel.

Haroun is embittered by the appalling effect of the death on his life. Not only did he lose the kindly young man who supported him after their father had abandoned the family, but their mother was clearly driven mad by the event, continually searching for the body, the lack of which to provide irrefutable evidence of her son’s death meaning that she has been unable to claim a pension. She appears emotionally cold towards the surviving son whom she seems to have resented for being the one to survive. The discovery that the murder has become the topic of a best-selling novel, bringing fame and fortune to the writer, only adds to the sense of outrage. Yet the ultimate insult is the failure to give the victim a name, remedied here by the information that it was in fact “Moussa”. ( It seems that the brothers names are Moses and Aaron in English).

Strictly speaking, this is not a counter-enquiry into a murder, but a somewhat cynical portrayal of Algeria, post the trauma of civil war and independence, casting an absurdist light on the religious bigotry used as a tool of social control, the enduring poverty, stagnation, corruption and betrayal of vision .

It is beneficial to have read “l’Étranger” first because of the frequent references made to it. When I reread it after finishing “Mersault, contre-enquête”, I was struck by how often Daoud mirrors events in the earlier novel: in “L’Étranger” (The Outsider), the opening sentence tells us that “maman” has died today, whereas in the later novel, “maman” is still alive. Just as Mersault describes his close observation of the comings and goings in the street below the balcony of his apartment, Haroun portrays the view from his overlooking the busy square which represents a microcosm of life in Algiers. In this, both create a strong sense of place.

Similarly, Mersault’s expression of his atheism, and his existentialist view of the absurdity of life (although he does not use these terms), reactions which so outrage both his defence and the prosecution, are imitated by the narrator Haroun’s ranting against God and the influence of the mosque. This led to the issue of a fatwa against the real-life author for blasphemy, which rather seems to justify his criticisms.

Note the parallel irony: whereas Mersault’s essential crime seems to be that he did not show grief at his mother’s funeral, for Haroun it is that he killed a Frenchman in symbolic revenge after Algeria gained independence rather than before.

Although this book has won much praise, I was sorry to find it extremely repetitive, too meandering, with a frequently somewhat overblown style as read in the original French. There are a few striking passages such as the description of the narrator’s mother’s face in old age: a kind of amalgam of the faces of all his ancestors, passing judgement on him. Although only about 150 pages in length, the novel seems too long for its thin substance. Each time I returned to it, I kept losing interest after a few pages, and had to force myself to read to the end for a book group. The failure to appreciate its style may be a fault on my part because I am more accustomed to and prefer a spare and concise approach more common in “western culture”.

This novel also reminded me of the much more engrossing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, perhaps because it employs the same device of a narrator button-holing someone to unburden himself, Ancient Mariner-wise.
Based on an interesting premise with great potential, this novel could have been executed better. Prompted to reread “L’Étranger”, the clarity of the prose, narrative drive and tighter structure defined for me why that is the superior novel, even though Mersault’s almost autistic lack of emotion and engagement in an absurd world is less explicable than Haroun’s very understandable anger over his lot.

It also struck me that, for Camus, the book is located in Algeria, his country of origin but existentialism is the main point, whereas for Douad, the tragedy of the failed project of Algerian independence is a major concern. His novel misses the mark partly because the author seems to lose sight of his fundamental aims.

April Lady by Georgette Heyer: Taking a gamble

April Lady by [Heyer, Georgette]

In Regency London, not quite nineteen-year-old Nell is desperate to obtain the sum needed to pay the bill for an expensive dress which she had forgotten when assuring her husband Cardross that she has no further outstanding debts. She is also consumed with guilt over lying to him over the use of her generous allowance to finance her brother’s losses at the gaming table, which her husband has forbidden her to do. Instead, she lets him think that she has foolishly  taken up gambling herself and incurred losses of her own. All this is making Cardross  regret having ignored the advice of friends who advised against his marrying  the daughter of an inveterate gambler who has ruined his aristocratic family with his addiction. The situation is aggravated by Nell’s concealment of her genuine love for her husband, as she follows her mother’s advice to be compliant at all times but not to appear too needy, and certainly not show any resentment over his mistress. Cardross also has to deal with a spoilt, capricious young half-sister, who is determined to marry a  respectable if dull but poor young man who is not her social equal. As matters reach a head, how will they be resolved?

Georgette Heyer was a prolific author, admired from the 1930s to her death in 1974 for  her immensely detailed knowledge of Georgian culture, even down to the upper class slang in vogue (now quite hard to follow and frankly the most irritating aspect of the novel). Reading this out of curiosity and expecting to find vacuous froth, I was surprised  how much it engaged me. Tightly plotted, it rattled along at a lively pace with well-developed characters.

I believe that Georgette Heyer was influenced strongly by Jane Austen, and  sacrilegious as it may sound, she holds her own in comparison. There is a clear parallel in the wry wit, although Heyer is actually much funnier.  She provides more detail of, for instance, customs which Jane Austen had no need to explain at the time, also tending to focus on upper class families, some even accustomed to socialising with the Prince Regent, whereas Austen’s theme was more often the lives of the country gentry.

Although I am not sure to what extent it is intentional, I like the way the author reveals the flaws in the aristocratic Regency world:  despite an obsession with conforming to expected norms and not lowering “the ton”, the idle rich fritter away their time gambling and flirting, particularly at masked balls. Even a “good”,  generous and loving husband thinks nothing of dominating and infantilising his young wife – also, he does not  apply his high moral standards to himself. A young man wastes his time on silly pranks because he is not expected to work at some activity which would employ his energy and ability, and so on.

If all Heyer’s  books are like this, reading them could pall quite quickly like too much cream meringue, but I would not regret reading her from time to time.

Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson

When her dividends dry up in the 1930a depression, Barbara Buncle sets about writing a book for publication to make ends meet, using the male pen-name of “John Smith” to cut more ice with the publisher. Since, to use her own words, she has “no imagination” this is inevitably about the doings of the inhabitants of her village of Silverstream, whom she has known for years. Mr. Abbott of Abbot and Spicer agrees to publish the book because the characters seem so real, and is also intrigued by the puzzle as to whether the author is writing subtly “tongue in cheek” or “a very simple person writing in all good faith” based on acute observation. The bestselling “Disturber of the Peace” provokes outrage among those who discover that they have been blatantly parodied in the clearly recognisable village which has been renamed “Copperfield”. They are determined to track down and punish “John Smith”, but even when some suggest that the author may be female, it does not occur to them that she might be the dowdy and insignificant Barbara Buncle. Under pressure from Mr. Abbot to write a second book, what will she reveal next, will she be exposed and, if so, with what outcome?

I was initially reluctant to read this for a book group, expecting it to be dated, trivial and at best provide a bit of escapism from the modern world. On one level, it is all these things, but is also an insight into a past way of life, and written with the same kind of clarity and humour as apparently employed by Miss Buncle, it carries the reader along.

Dorothy (D E) Stevenson wrote stories compulsively from her childhood onwards and became a prolific and successful novelist of mainly romantic fiction, since then fallen out of print for decades. It is interesting to speculate how she would have used her talent in different circumstances: if born a man like her father’s cousin Robert Louis Stevenson, she might have written adventure stories; if born now, she might have applied her fertile imagination to TV drama series. As it was, she followed the conventions of her time in which a widow living beyond her means could not think of finding a job but had to scheme to trap a wealthy husband; a vicar’s wife who found it extravagant to hire a taxi still had three servants and a nanny; men dominated their wives who had to resort to subtly manipulating them without appearing to; the two women who lived together were never explicitly referred to as lesbians, but the intelligent one who had never been allowed to get educated and develop her brain is shown playing the “male” role to support her weak and indecisive partner, and so on.

So, in writing about a world in which “the good ended happily and the bad unhappily – that is what fiction means”, Dorothy Stevenson is worth reading mainly for her humorous observation of human nature.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: relentless quest

Washington Black: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

Born into captivity in 1818 on the inaptly named Faith Plantation in Barbados, George Washington Black wields a hoe to weed the fields from the age of two, progressing to cutting the sugar cane by the time he was ten years old, with only Big Kit, the tough, superstitious slave woman from Dahomey to look out for him. The arrival of a sadistic new master in the form of Erasmus Wilde brings a turn for the worse in an already bleak situation, Big Kit tells “Wash” of her plan to kill them both, as a means of escape back to freedom in their African “homeland”, but fortunately for him, holds back from committing this extreme act. Wash then catches the eye of the master’s brother Christopher, known as “Titch”, a very different man, liberal-minded and obsessed with scientific discoveries, including the perfection of his “cloud-cutter”, a kind of hot air balloon for which Wash will “provide ballast” but also prove useful as an assistant, with a natural talent for drawing.

When Wash and Titch are forced eventually to escape from the plantation, the book becomes a mixture of adventure yarn and right-of-passage novel. The scene moves from Barbados to England, even Morocco, via America and Nova Scotia. Undoubtedly original and imaginative, the prose includes some striking passages, such as the description of the octopus which Wash encounters and catches when he has somewhat unbelievably dived down to the shallow seabed with minimal training.

I chose to read it partly because I was so impressed by Esi Edugyan’s earlier work, Half Blood Blues, with the added incentive that both books were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. However, I have a number of reservations. The plot hinges on some highly implausible dramatic incidents, which I suppose could be accepted on a par with “magic realism”, but there is also a reliance on far too many unlikely coincidences. It is frustrating to know that the book was inspired by real events, without knowing exactly what they were.

I realise that the dialogues may be intended to reflect the speech of the period, but they often seem stilted and artificial, while apart from Wash, the characters are not developed as rounded, convincing individuals. Although Wash is a sympathetic hero, I did not believe that an illiterate and brutalised slave could narrate this tale at the age of only eighteen, using such a sophisticated vocabulary and displaying so great a level of knowledge and understanding, based on perhaps a maximum of four years in Titch’s company, spending the rest of the time in unskilled manual labour. This seems like yet another case of a first person narrator being given the “voice” of the author, a problem which could have been avoided by writing the whole thing in the third person.

In its defence, the book also includes some intriguing themes, such as the extent to which, perhaps because of suffering in early life, some of the main characters cannot sustain or even form relationships, and are driven to wander rootlessly through life, even viewing death as a means of escape to freedom. Another is how, even when he is technically free, Wash may still be exploited by white men who perceive themselves as liberal and anti-slavery.

In the case of this uneven novel with brilliant patches, duller tracts which lack narrative drive, and an ambiguous ending, I was left a little unsure as to what the author was trying to achieve.