Review: ‘Early One Morning’ by Virginia Baily

On a recommendation, I picked up ‘Early One Morning’ late one evening and must admit, I foun9780349006512d it difficult to keep hold of it.
For starters, writing in the present tense will never be something my mind is comfortable with – it feels too jarring and ineffectual in a narrative, because a narrative can rarely actually be present tense; you don’t often narrate as you observe, you narrate as you recount. And the past tense in this book, in my opinion, is a recount; it’s embedding Chiara’s past and present to show how she roved from the then to the now.

Chiara and Simone were difficult to believe in as well. They were allegedly older ladies, but we’re repetitively told they aren’t past their prime – well if they were having lives in the 1940s as adults, they certainly couldn’t be party animals in the 1970s. Now this isn’t me saying they should have been sat at home knitting and waiting for pension day, but some sense of age and perspective was needed to make them more believable and realistic.

And to alay fears of being ageist, Maria was a difficulty to me as well; at one moment a loving family member, and at another a Roman goddess. I physically cringed at the description of her ‘creamy breasts’ – a sixteen year old, come on – and couldn’t figure out where her real emotional value lay. Yes she’s a teen and they’re difficult at the best of times, but there’s normally one element of them you can pin down – Maria didn’t have this. Her switches flipped constantly, and it was too emphatically enforced every few lines that she would only call her dad Barry and her mother Nora was a traitor. It was too much; subtlety would have been wonderful here.

What I did enjoy, however, was the storyline about Daniele Levi and Chiara’s authorised kidnapping of a young Jewish boy about to be sent to a labour camp. The notion of a mother’s sacrifice is nothing new, yet Senora Levi’s decision was beautifully stoic and incredibly moving for the shortness of its appearance. Likewise, the transformation of Daniele from mute to recovering to addict was well handled and executed; not overplayed, and certainly not garish. It was what it was, and was a reminder of how well other incidents could have been handled.

Equally, dealing with Cecilia’s epilepsy in a time where it was still misunderstood and scorned was fascinating. It’s not often we think about epilepsy as debilitating now, with media portrayals in hospital dramas and such like of a fit being something you ‘get over’. Of course it’s not, and Cecilia’s story illustrated that, and it was a refreshing yet harrowing plot. I feel her ending lacked justice for how well she had been built up, and I really struggled to believe that Chiara, whose most authentic trait was the love for her sister and Daniele, would just abandon her and fail to mourn afterwards. It felt cold, cruel and out of spirit with who both of them were.

Perhaps, then, it is worth picking this up; I was keen to finish for the positive reasons of intrigue, but there are obvious narrative flaws. It is, therefore, a book for passing the time rather than consuming it, I feel.

Review: ‘Cymbeline’ @ the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The RSC’s production of the much-underperformed and often underrated ‘Cymbeline’ was a different experience for me: it’s the first time I’ve seen a Shakespeare play without having read the script first. As such, it became a small test for me; would I understand it without having studied it?

Answer: yes.

Because the RSC’s production was incredibly accessible and amazingly performed, making three hours of theatre seem like a blur of betrayal, mistrust and reconciliation.

The first thing to note was that Cymbeline was no longer King of Britain; Cymbeline was, in fact, the Queen, with the leering and overly confident Duke preening at her side. It made the play have a different dynamic; suddenly strength was redefined, and to be Queen in such a male-dominated world became a harder task, and instead of being an ineffectual ruler, Cymbeline became a woman with a lot to fear within and without the court. It was an intriguing and wonderful decision, proving Shakespeare still has new dimensions to add hundred of years after the play’s conception.

Innogen became my new favourite female Shakespearean character within this (although technically Guideria could have taken that role, but more gender-swapping means this might not technically be my favourite female). She was feisty, determined, principled and courageous; at least, that’s how Bethan Cullinane played her. I admired her more than Posthumus, a character often proclaimed for his virtues and yet one whose virtues I saw little of. He was easily manipulated and impulsive in all the wrong ways – not the man I would have liked our heroine to pledge her honour to, but still…

I also loved the lighter moments, particularly with Guideria (Natalie Simpson – of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ fame) and company in the woods. My favourite lighter moment was when Cymbeline questioned Clotten’s (Marcus Griffiths) fate and, in her best northern accent, Guideria declared ‘I slew him’. It was moments like this that made sure you weren’t fully plunged into the depths of despair, preventing tragedy from becoming all-encompassing and wholly distressing – a feat the RSC has often achieved with wonderful effect.

As I said, having not read the play some of its more delicate symbolism was lost on me until the end; the tree stump in the centre of the stage was a mystery until the closing scenes, where Cymbeline’s tree had regrown with family and honour. It worked, and was a pleasing revelation at the end tying the whole play up neatly. I loved the romantically brutal movements at the beginning separating Innogen and Posthumus, so gently and yet so tragically after their young love was denied.

The only, and it’s absolutely miniscule, thing I disliked about this came from the above scene, where the lovers ended their meeting with Posthumus’ trousers down – a feat unnecessary and a little bit distasteful after all the pledges of undying love. I realised it was so that Cymbeline and the cunning Duke had something to catch more than just Posthumus in a room with Innogen, but something about it jarred with the value of their words for me.

Two questions I would ask of Shakespeare’s play: surely a better resolution than ‘after all that war, let’s give in to Rome’s demands as we should have done in the first place’ could have been found? And where was the comeuppance for Philario (Byrron Mondahl), the erstwhile childcatcher who robber the Queen of her eldest children? These were niggles with the plot rather than production, but suspending disbelief, the experience was still an enjoyable one.

Cymbeline’s reign is short – the RSC and cinema screens host her for a short while, and I urge you to become an attentive citizen and follow a story of love, deceit and family with avid attention…

 

Reading ‘The Cursed Child’: Pros and Cons

Last night marked my final night of being consumed by ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ – and it is a brilliant story, not overcomplicated but thrilling in equal amounts, it seems to make for a spectacular production.

But fans are conflicted as to whether to follow the script-reading route or to leave the play a magical surprise (the surprise being getting tickets in 50 years time). So here’s my five pros and cons of reading the script…

323970110Pros:

1) It’s enchanting: in the punderful and literal sense. It’s a heartwarming story and reminds us what Harry Potter is all about – friends, family and a world unified by love.

2) You’ll understand the nuances of the play: from Augurey’s to spells cast, there are inevitably bits of any play that you miss in the excitement of watching – this is a handy guide.

3) The chances of getting tickets: slim to none, at present. This way, you know the story but still have the theatrical spectacular to look forward to (along with the inevitable tour, then film…).

4) What if you can only see Part One? Here’s the cure without leaving you clawing at your eyeballs desperate to know the end.

5) It’s all about the journey: whether it’s read, seen, heard, danced…Harry Potter has always been a wonderful journey, and this allows you to experience it with your own interpretations, and your own response to the characters – just as the books did.

 

Cons:

  1. Spoilers! Need I say more? Everything’s ruined, there’s no magical surprises. But then again, see the issue vis a vis ticket acquisition…
  2. Misreading: there are areas that will inevitably leave you scratching your head because you don’t know how it’s supposed to be acted, intoned and seen – it’s a play, not a book, after all, and stage directions are minimal.
  3. Guessing: in the frenzy of the theatre, it would be easy to get engrossed and forget to guess ahead as to what’s coming, but in reading I couldn’t help it – there are so many tantalising clues that you’re constantly second guessing your reading.
  4. Your favourites aren’t the same: perhaps its better to divorce them from the books in certain places, because the trio we left behind have changed, and sometimes for the frustrating rather than the good.
  5. Theatre advocates, unite! Who doesn’t enjoy the wonder of the theatre?! Let the theatre do its job – transform a magical script to a spellbinding play.

harry-potter-and-the-cursed-child-2

‘The Railway Man’: Five Reasons to Read Eric Lomax’s Harrowing PoW Account

‘The Railway Man’ is Eric Lomax’s autobiographical tale of survival and heroism as a prisoner of war in Singapore during World War Two. It’s harrowing but something that should be experienced, and here’s why…

 

  1. It’s real: there’s no plea for sympathy, it’s not being told because Lomax wants the world to weep for him. No, this story is written for the sake of letting us know what history often misses, and as an act of healing for a man who has struggled to cope with the unthinkable for years.
  2. It’s not the taught thing: who has a knowledge of World War Two outside of Europe and America? Pearl Harbour is probably the most popularised knowledge of events beyond the Western Front, and I myself have to admit I knew very little about Japan’s involvement in hostilities. Why shouldn’t this area of heroism and bravery be memorialised?
  3. The language: it’s an old guard sort of expression that haunts every page; I think my favourite came towards the end with a reference to a beautiful memories to barbarism.
  4. You won’t stop when the book is finished: it’s addictive. It’s a search for knowledge and understanding from the word ‘go’, and you can’t help but need more when it finishes.
  5. It’s not just about war: the end is perhaps a highlight. Beyond the war, beyond the conflict, there’s a life that Lomax had to return to and attempt to live, despite a lack of understanding and comfort provided on the Home Front.

 

Get reading – it’s a journey that leaves you angry, terrified and upset, but more importantly reminds us that the war wasn’t just a battlefield in France – lest we forget.

Review: “The Mystery of Mercy Close’ by Marian Keyes

Another Walsh family drama, this one a clever mix of light-and-airy with dark-and-scary, in discovering Helen Walsh’s Shovel List, dislike of small talk and battle with recurring chronic depression. It’s a real rollercoaster in knowing where you are at any one point, and in that sense it seems that Keyes has succeeded in exploring the day-to-day struggles of someone suffering with depression, and it was this chronicle that was the most interesting element of the book.

Don’t hold your hats for an epic Jay Parker/Bronagh Blake bust up reveal; it’s really not as interesting as I was holding out for, and underplaying somewhat considering the juicy hints dropped throughout the novel. However, the Wayne Diffney reveal, although long and sometimes arduous in its coming, was well worth the wait, and a surprising twist that should have been evident miles away; clever yet understated in a brilliant way.

As I’ve said, my favourite (and I choose that word carefully, aware it’s not apt) element of ‘Mercy Close’ was Helen’s struggle with depression. Here is a character who doesn’t suffer fools or social convention gladly, with a few setbacks but nothing edging on the point of disaster, and yet it was so utterly convincing that she was fighting a blackness never seen but eternally felt that it became a fascination. Here wasn’t a dive into the throes of misery and self-pity, but a normal woman ploughing on with life with her demons trailing her despite her best efforts to appear ‘well’. It was so refreshingly honest in a breezy, ‘this is how it is’ almost factual way. Keyes makes something that most of us cannot empathise with part of a regular life so that, finally, there is an alternative window into something so devastating, and it’s not the window portraying hyperbole but reality.

The rest could almost be inconsequential; my reason for persevering was to find out how Helen would recover, because she is an inherently likeable character for her brutal honesty. Wayne’s discovery came second, but the interest in Laddz and the potential scam at large faded quickly; those elements became a bit too cliched, and fortunately they weren’t perhaps at the forefront, although I feel their positioning in terms of importance is up to the individual reader.

Overall, it’s a combination of a beach read and something that will keep you up at night pledging ‘just one more chapter, that’s all’. Helen’s journey is intriguing as a character suffering something unknowable if you haven’t experienced it, and the insight is invaluable; Mercy Close is just a convenient vessel for Helen’s own personal lows and highs.

Review: ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell

There are several things that have kept me away from reading masses of travel writing, the dominant reason being that they’re a collection of incidents without rhyme or reason. On the whole, I have always been a bigger fan of fiction that non-fiction for that reason, because I need a conclusion – perhaps a flaw in myself, the eternal need for closure when reading.

‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ sort of fits with this expectation. Chapters are full of vitalised and interesting details, only to end with sentences declaring ‘I just wanted to give an impression of life here’, and that is Orwell’s eternal reasoning behind his writing. As such, I can see why he struggled to find publication for this – the ‘Introduction’ by Dervla Murphy indicates as much, highlighting Orwell’s tendency to identify intense detail before drifting off and realising his purpose has been lost.

There were two times this didn’t happen, and for me these were the most interesting moments of the book: when Orwell transitioned from Paris to London and gave his account of poverty, and when in London debating the social exclusion of ‘tramp’ culture. Here was a flare, a passion being explored, and it was absolutely fascinating; this wasn’t just some socialist rant from a soap box, it was a man who had been this down and out, who had served his time of hardship to learn what vagrancy truly is, not just identifying it by perceptions alone. This was the ultimate redemption for the book in my opinion; how often do we see things from the homeless person’s perspective? The modern equivalent, perhaps, is ‘A Streetcat Named Bob’, a story which, like Orwell’s, doesn’t want sympathy, love or high esteem from being told, but tells it so we can see what life is really like.

And that, upon reflection, is why ‘Down and Out’ works – despite the aforementioned lack of direction, it is insightful to see how life works when down and out, without being constantly pushed towards an agenda. Orwell’s account doesn’t ask for sympathy, donations, a plea to buy his books so his down and out days are over – it simply shows us what the world is really like beneath the veneer through which we see it. He dispels the myths surrounding his contemporary perceptions on homelessness and vagrancy, and shows readers that vagrancy doesn’t mean a lack of ambition or want, more a lack of opportunity.

It’s a travel book I would heartily recommend, and I will be looking into collections such as ‘Burmese Days’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ with a renewed interest in the genre – hopefully, one that is sustained.