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Darker Fables

Writing and reviews. Adventures, maybe? Exciting, definitely.

Review: Sandra Gulland’s ‘Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe’

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Good Lord, this should have been posted sooner, but I have been in that nightmarish state of wanting to write but having no willpower to get tappity at the keyboard for anything besides assignments for weeks. 

But I’m back, and following on from Joséphine B., I dove straight into this trilogy’s next installment, which was solid. Tales of Passion does not veer from the established style of its predecessor, and offers little by way of surprise, but the strengths of the first novel are carried through, with Joséphine (the name Rose is sacrificed upon marriage to Bonaparte) remaining a compelling protagonist witness to the turmoils of a fascinating era.

Fame was the last thing I’d expected from marriage to Bonaparte. Strange, intense little Napoléon, the ill-mannered Corsican – a hero now, the Liberator of Italy. The man to whom kings bowed.

Whereas Joséphine B. follows a girl through adolescence and well into her adult life, Tales of Passion covers the much shorter period of time between Joséphine’s marriage to Napoleon and her ascension to the French throne.

The narrative is much more complicated, with a great deal more intrigue and political drama playing out around our protagonist, and embroiling her in its chaos.

This is not always a good thing, since Gulland’s writing often lacks the dexterity to handle these numerous intricate events. In places the novel has a glossing quality which makes me wonder why the the editor did not license an extra hundred pages.

“I told you, this will be bloodless.”

“There are other ways to ruin a man.”

That being said, however, Joséphine is an older woman in this text, and entering a phase of life in which age becomes a concern, which I found engrossing. I am so accustomed to historical novels which focus on women during their early years that it was refreshing to read about a woman slipping past childbearing, an era of womanhood which most novels, with their focus on young, developing protagonists, never explore.

Also, though there is some depth missing when it comes to the politics, this novel is effective in digging deep into its characters’ emotions. I found it interesting to see the late summer of someone’s life as the era in which romance enters. The problematic, passionate and powerful relationship between Joséphine and Napoleon is one of this novel’s greatest strengths, especially impressive since much of it is long distance during this installment.

I won’t go so far as to say I loved this novel – I do think it is the weakest of the trilogy – but as an essential part of a thoroughly engaging series, there is little I can truly fault.

Now, alone in my boudoir, I look through the thick file, the names of so many thousands of men and women, and I am overwhelmed. Can I do this? I pray for strength.

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Ink

I am not the praying type,
but I throw my head down,
for summons, for spirits,
for feu sacré.

City of surrealists, yet I
embraced pre-assigned stories,
those Grimm fairy tales
about young writers in Paris.

If being is close to believing,
then I had nothing left to learn,
only so many words,
overflowing,
there but stripped of meaning.

This slow-moving river
has pulled me
deeper into sand than water,
but still I spent summer dancing,
romanced, though I slept alone.

Now we are waiting for spring,
water around our ankles,
and I think in another city
this would still be a song
for the times, different
than the days before.

© Deanna Scutt, 2018

Review: Kij Johnson’s ‘The Fox Woman’

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I believe that multiple narrator novels are difficult to do well, so please pardon my jealousy as I sit here seething over how Johnson makes it look easy. 

The Fox Woman is set in ancient Japan, and follows Yoshifuji, a courtier who decides to retreat into the country after political disgrace, Shikujo, his wife, trapped by her determination to be perfect, and Kitsune, a fox living on their estate.

Anthropomorphism is something which, in my experience, either works very well, or is laughably bad. Johnson definitely fits the former bracket.

“…Art is itself, but also the thing it appears to be… Like the moon and its reflection in a puddle. The puddle does not have the real moon. If you bite it, it shatters, it is just water in the dirt. But every detail of the moon is there, so, yes, it is the moon. What was it of, this reflection?”

“Of us, Grandfather,” Brother said.

There was silence for a long breath. “That is bad.”

There is a long list of things I like about this novel, from its sumptuous prose and magical themes to its fantastic storyline and distinct characterisation of the three protagonists, but the main thing for me was the character development. Yoshifuji starts the novel selfish and blind, Shikujo secretive, vain, and Kitsune arrogant. By the end all are changed.

The story is, at first glance, the story of Kitsune and Yoshifuji. Kitsune’s love for this man, and the terrible things she is willing to do to have him. But I think the true heroine of the novel is Shikujo. Certainly I found her transformation the most compelling, and the truest to what seems to be the message of the book – the difference between being alive, and living.

For this moment, I am wholly myself, unshaped by the needs of others, by their dreams or expectations or sensibilities. But I am also lonely. With no one to shape me, who stands here, watching the moon, or the stars, or the clouds? I feel insubstantial, as if the wind might suddenly dissolve me, like a weak mist.

And the writing. I have already said sumptuous, but that does no justice. Captivating, romantic, rich, dark and lascivious, Johnson’s prose is a literary treat.

My one qualm is that I do feel Yoshifuji started the novel a fool, and though he was a different man by the end, I still felt him to be incredibly foolish, something which made him a little unconvincing as a love interest, next to Kitsune’s burgeoning insight, and Shikujo’s intelligence.

But overall, I loved it. I am looking forward to sampling Johnson’s other work, and based on this (as well as The Guest Cat), I am really in the mood to sample more Japanese-themed literature. Any suggestions will be welcomed!

Life is better lived as an adventure than as a work of art, I think.

Review: Takashi Hiraide’s ‘The Guest Cat’

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This novella (just 136 pages!) was recommended to me by a friend. Despite its short length, it took me a long time to get round to it. I think because the premise didn’t inspire great expectations.

The Guest Cat has a loose, inconsequential plot. A Japanese man and his wife live on the grounds of an old estate. The neighbours have a cat who starts to visit.

There are no compelling events in the narrative, and the human characters are shade-like, drifting on the edge of the writing as their lives flow around Chibi and her antics.

When a girl who often passed along Lightning Alley stopped and crouched to gaze at the cat, it did not run away. But as soon as she attempted to touch it, the cat quickly slipped off, avoiding contact at all costs. The cat’s manner of rejection was like cold, white light.

This is a quiet novel. The prose is poetic, but reserved, and the cat at its centre remains enigmatic, physically and metaphorically slipping through the narrator’s fingers.

There is something deeply compelling about this read, however. It expresses the subtle nuances with which animals can enhance our lives, and our lives with one another. I was delighted by it, and though it’s a foray into different territory for me, it’s a venture I’m glad I made.

A concise and muted text, but buoyant, sad, and beautiful, The Guest Cat is a genuine work of art.

I stood there alone for a while. The old man and the old woman were gone. My wife and the cat were no longer there, and I too was already gone.

Back to Blogging

As ever, a lot has happened since I last wrote.

I went on holiday, to Normandy (my first trip away with my boyfriend, henceforth to be known as N), and we crossed the five month mark, which makes him seem strangely new, when in truth I can no longer imagine a future with anyone else.

And there was snow! After making a bid to become the next Atlantis, Paris was then covered in a real blanket. To my surprise, the trains kept running. A few lines have been closed because of the flooding, but for the most part, the systems that hold Paris together are less delicate than they seem.

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At work, with my most challenging four-child all-boy family I was engaged in a to-the-death snowball fight (which did not go well for me), and then another, the next day, with the half-Russians – who, given their upbringing in a land of snow and ice, I am inclined to believe had an unfair advantage.

The snow has melted away now, throwing us back into grey skies and the threat of rain, but I am happy. In a few weeks I am sure it will start to feel like spring, and then I’ll be able to shed my (leaking) boots for pumps, and walk about the city without gloves.

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It’s not all good news, since if I am honest I am struggling with university. Getting a distinction at masters is looking increasingly difficult. I didn’t do badly in my first semester, but I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped I would. This threw me into a dismal state of self-loathing, which has been a drain on my inspiration for my new pieces this semester. But I’ll get there, and hopefully with time I’ll learn to be less cruel to myself.

Certainly I’ve had no shortage of experiences to draw upon these past few weeks. Our trip to Normandy was breathtaking (and a topic for another post!), never mind the weather, and Paris is, as Paris ever was, one of the best places a writer can be.

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January Blues

The world can be a dismal place at this time of year, and even the romance of Paris can’t distract from driving rain and howling wind. The grey bricked paths that line the Seine, which I walked along in sandals during the summer, have vanished beneath rising water, and the trees are stark silhouettes against a white sky.

But the year is now well underway, and with Christmas a distant memory, it’s time to look ahead, past this grey season, into the spring to come.

In a little over two months it will be the first anniversary of my moving here, and after that it will not be many more months before I return to the place I came from, hopefully a little more savvy, sage, and chic than I was when I left.

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The reality of living in Paris is not as glamorous as the movies might have you believe. This is a city of great contrasts. I have worked in more than one bourgeoisie apartment, and peered into the glowing window of many a boulangerie. I have taken the air on long city strolls, and sunned myself on the banks of the Seine, but I have also seen homeless children sheltering under cardboard. I’ve seen ugly demonstrations walled in by lines of police, and I’ve learnt to watch the pavement for the dog filth and drunken piss.

Paris is not always the wonderful picture photographed for the postcards, I admit, but it has been home to me, and given me a taste of the independence I longed for. I have been changed by this city, undoubtedly for the better, and that I am grateful for.

Whatever happens hereafter, I do know there will always be a part of me that is at home here. I will never be French, but like the house cat, Sasha, I feel comfortable. For now, and the for time left in this particular chapter of my life, this is exactly where I want to be.

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Wind Song

Were you singing last night?
Or was it just the rain,
flicking its tongue
at the bolted window?

I’ve never been here before,
to this place like Narnia,
which I love like all the secrets
I’ve ever been told.

For the first time in life,
I feel like a body,
no more a voice,
snatched from the wind.
I am a kite on higher currents,
reeling out and in.

Those little moments
in this darkened room
make me earth beneath flame,
ash and air, or roots with a name.

I can’t see the moon
with my head on your shoulder,
but on these occasions
when darkness pervades,
I sink
in soft waters.

I forget places,
words,
pains.

© Deanna Scutt, 2018

Whiskers

These days it’s
squeezing juice
out from a lemon,
grinding pulp
over plastic
until nothing
means nothing.

We can go
to different houses,
provided shoes
aren’t in the safe,
and the locked
door opens, no need
for crowbars.

I thought…
but that’s besides
the actual point,
which is I came here
to sign, not sigh
over what might
happen.

I know
I squirm, cat-like,
all claw and fang,
but if you let go
my tail,
I might return.

It’s plausible,
one possibility
for my many lives.

© Deanna Scutt, 2017

Review: Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ‘The Possibilities’

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Hmm… I’m not going to lie. This wasn’t as good as I hoped it might be.

Last year I read The Descendants, by the same author, and it was one of my favourite general fiction reads ever. Probably, my expectations of this were unrealistic from the start.

The Possibilities is a first-person novel following Sarah St. John, a forty-something shopping channel TV host, and her experiences as a newly grieving mother.

I’ve become stormy and difficult, mean and sad. If I was confronted with someone like myself I’d feel sorry for them. Then I’d get bored by them, and then I’d hate them for their sad, sad story.

She’s not the most likable protagonist. Her thoughts, and not just as a result of grief, are often unkind, and her treatment of other characters is frequently careless. However, I don’t think that’s a failing. She is well-fleshed, complex, and her development through the stages of grief is mature and convincing.

I don’t know though, it just didn’t do it for me. Somehow the delicate undertones of feeling that made The Descendants so strong were muddled here. The tension was uneven, and I couldn’t share in the sentiments, as I felt I could with the other novel.

The plot wasn’t the focus, so I can forgive it for being predictable, and there were moments that hinted at the emotional punch this novel fails to deliver. However, it was all a bit like the smell of next door’s cooking on an empty stomach. Tantalising, but ultimately unsatisfying, and more than a bit frustrating.

It’s a beautiful day, I realize. I live in a beautiful place. The surrounding pines, so impossibly tall, sparkle with snow. I tilt my face up and inhale, willing my surroundings to enter me somehow and to remind me how small I am.

I liked most of the secondary characters, especially Sarah’s father, and I think from an empirical perspective the novel is effective in exploring the different ways people mourn, but there was no one I adored.

The humour, also, is an acquired taste (but maybe that’s cultural – it’s no secret American humour doesn’t always work so well across the pond), and the prose is an inch from average.

But I liked it. I did. The portrayal of female friendships is actually quite exceptional. I just didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.

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