Every now and then I read a book which, for weeks afterwards, whenever anyone asks me ‘what shall I read next?’, I press a copy into their hands. So far in 2016, Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’ has been that book.
Harry Cane is a young man of seemingly limited ambition who is able to live comfortably with his young wife and child without the need to bother himself with a career. His marriage is not without love, but is without passion. Following a chance encounter with an attractive voice coach, with whom he embarks upon an illicit sexual affair, Harry discovers the ardour missing from his matrimony. When the relationship is discovered and Harry faces public disgrace, he decides upon emigration from England to Canada. There is the promise of anonymity, but also land and the chance to forge a new beginning.
The opening chapter of the book is difficult to figure out, as it seems as if Harry is now in some kind of hospital or institution, but his supposed crime is not entirely clear. By the end of the novel, the author has cleverly brought the narrative full circle and the explanations are unexpected.
Gale explores many themes in ‘A Place Called Winter‘, including sexuality, gender, isolation, forgiveness and acceptance, all handled with a quietly confident style, whose simple prose belies the strength of the plot and its main players. The historical perspective and sense of place are highly evocative, capturing both the social and physical landscapes of England and the Canadian prairies in the early 1800s.
The success of the novel lies in the characterisation of Harry Cane and his capacity for love in its many guises; parental, platonic, sexual and romantic. He is also an essentially good man, in the truest sense of the word. Despite Harry’s experiences he retains an almost childlike nature, trusting and guileless. I was with him all the way.
Still on the death theme after ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘, I chanced upon Lucie Brownlee’s autobiographical account of her life after her husband died suddenly, leaving Lucie and their small daughter bereft. To start with, the author is writing from a position of disbelief; staring at her husband’s coffin at the funeral, Lucie can’t believe who is inside it. The realisation of the permanency of her separation from Mark is a slow, painful dawning. With the new knowledge comes acceptance and hope.
The situation when my partner died suddenly was not the same as Lucie’s; we had been together only a few years and the child who lived with us was his, but not mine. Nevertheless, I found myself scouring the pages of ‘Life After You’ for common ground. There seems to be comfort in knowing that your own experiences have echoes of others’. Grief is a personal, private affair with no blueprint but I recognised Lucie’s behaviours as she struggled on. Anxiety, panic attacks, crying in public, visiting a clairvoyant, a tentative and wholly unsuitable relationship just to prove you can get back on the bike, so to speak. And the drinking. Oh yes, the drinking. It’s not cool and it’s not funny to be so drunk you can’t stand up and fall asleep in your clothes, the wise-mummy now tells her teenagers. But in the early days of grief, the mind-numbing relief to be found in the bottom of a bottle sometimes feels like the only way to get through the next few hours.
Having your husband die on you is clearly not funny, yet ‘Life After You‘ is shot through with a gentle humour which endeared me to the author and her situation. The tone of the book is frank, matter-of-fact and I laughed, and cried quite a lot as well.
Now I have finished ‘Life After You‘ I am reflecting upon the fact that there are very few people to whom I would recommend it. Not because of the quality of writing, which is insightful and poignant, but because of the subject matter. All I can think is that if you have a friend or acquaintance who has been suddenly widowed, this book will give you a little window into their world. Knowledge which would be invaluable should you be unfortunate enough to ever need it. Because if there is one thing I learned from my bereavement is that what gives strength is the people around us and what remains. Not what has gone.
Choosing what to read next is like choosing from a menu. I run my fingers down the literary à la carte and make my choice according to what takes my fancy; something long, not too difficult, a bit romantic and slightly fairy-story. After the seriousness of my last read, I opted for Lucinda Riley; Enid Blyton for grown-ups. And I don’t consider that to be an insult. Like many of my generation, I cut my bookish teeth on Mallory Towers and St Clare’s. Stories to get lost in. I’ve only recently forgiven my mother for not letting me go to boarding school.
Dumped by her American lover when he discovers she is a Windmill girl, Greta Simpson is forced to leave London when she realises she is pregnant. Luckily, her friend ‘Taffy’ (David) offers her sanctuary at a small cottage on his family’s Welsh estate, and so Greta is drawn in to Marchmont. After a disastrous marriage and haunted by grief, Greta takes her daughter back to London to try and re-build their lives.
‘The Angel Tree‘ follows the life of Greta, revealed through flashbacks from Christmas 1985 when she has re-joined her family at Marchmont Hall. As well as her grand-daughter, Ava, Greta is also accompanied by her David, now a lifelong friend. David is hoping that re-visiting Marchmont will help Greta to recover her memory, which was lost when she was involved in an accident. Throughout Greta’s unsettled life, David is the one constant. But will they ever declare their love for one another?
All in all, this is a pretty awful book. The characters are wooden, they are stereo-typed and make terrible choices. There is a very dubious portayal of mental illness in Cheska’s character and Greta seems to lie without compunction. The plot is predictable and uninspiring and the whole thing could have done with being edited down to about two-thirds of its final length. I also spotted more than a few jarring grammatical errors (yes, I am a punctuation pedant).
But did I care? Not a jot. There is room in my reading life for Lucinda Riley as well as Lionel Shriver, I just allowed myself to drift along. The words slip through my mind like sand in an egg-timer, almost imperceptibly and requiring very little effort. Continuing my earlier culinary references ‘The Angel Tree‘ is a bit like the literary equivalent of a Chinese takeaway – it’s quite satisfying at the time, but an hour later you’ll have forgotten all about it and will be hungry again!
Death has always been a big part of my life. My Mum will tell you I was quite a morbid child at the best of times. Having suffered a number of significant bereavements by the time I’d reached my early twenties, my preoccupation with the Grim Reaper was well, set in stone. I don’t think anyone who knows me well was particularly surprised when I decided to pursue a qualification in Civil Funeral Celebrancy.
Studying for the celebrancy course revived my interest in many things death-related and so I came across Caitlin Doughty’s fascinating autobiographical book ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium’. The author was in her early twenties when she made an unlikely career move and become a crematorium operator. The book not only recounts Doughty’s experiences at the pointy end of disposing of dead bodies, but also lays the foundations for a much wider debate about the whole business of death. Although set in the US, the issues she raises are also relevant to the UK. As well as examining the death rituals of historical and contemporary cultures and belief systems, Doughty also challenges the modern ways of disposing of the dead. We have become distant from the actual processes involved in caring for our loved ones after death, preferring instead to entrust those final ministrations to strangers, whom we pay for their skills. Doughty cites some 10 pages of sources for her work, testament to her meticulous research and obvious knowledge of her subject. I was particularly fascinated by the references to Jessica Mitford’s seminal work ‘The American Way of Death‘, which criticised what Mitford saw as funeral directors’ profiteering and led to national debate.
It all sounds as if it would make very heavy reading, but that is not the case at all. Whilst the author does not shy away from some of the detail you would expect – decomposition, the disposal of medical remains, embalming and dressing a body, there is no salaciousness or irreverence. Instead, Doughty writes with compelling conviction about a subject which she has clearly made her life’s work and which is an important one for all of us. There is even humour, although never a lack of respect for the dead.
In some ways it is difficult to recommend this book as I have no doubt that most will shy away from even thinking about the subject matter. After all, death is the only certainty in life and most of us would prefer not to think about the realities. But I believe the discussions Doughty initiates are essential ones for 21st Century society and reading such a frank, passionate and enlightening book is a great way to open the debate. Go on. Read this book and then talk about it with your loved ones. It might just change your life. Or your death.