I started reading these lovely stories the evening before I went to the Elizabeth Taylor day at Battle library in Reading. I had a lovely read of it going down on the train and finished it on the train coming home after a lovely day talking and listening to others talk, about Elizabeth Taylor. I will write another post about that though.
There are 12 stories in this collection – I enjoyed all the stories, they are beautiful, minutely observed and intuitively drawn. Her characters are so immediately recognisable, as Taylor was such a faithful chronicler of people, ordinary middle class people particularly - although she also observes servants and their like with absolute understanding and sympathy. I am not going to try and describe each story – but there are a few I wish to draw attention to, as particularly good examples of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories. In “The Letter Writers” we have a middle aged woman meeting the man to whom she has written to for years – as Taylor describes it…
“the crisis of meeting for the first time the person whom she knew best in the world.”
It is almost inevitably a meeting that is far from what it might have been. The whole is a wonderfully devastating snap shot of a sad lonely woman and the enormity of a meeting which could only ever be disappointing.
“The Ambush” is a touching examination of grief, as a young woman goes to stay with the woman who might have become her mother-in-law had her son not been killed in a car accident.
“Her irritation suddenly heeled over into grief and she dropped her brush, stunned, appalled, as the monstrous pain leapt upon her.”
In “Summer Schools” two middle aged sisters, who share their home, each take a holiday. One sister visits an old married school friend; the other attends a summer lecture course. They each find their experiences to be unsatisfactory, and they are forced to recognise the lives they are leading for what they are.
“Of recent years she had often tried to escape the memory of two maiden-ladies who lived near her home when she and Melanie were girls. So sharp-tongued and cross-looking, they had seemed to be as old as could be, yet may have been no more than in their fifties, she now thought.”
Other stories are darkly comic, such as The Blush – the title story – which is very short – Mrs Allen a sensible middle aged lady finds she become an unwitting alibi for her domestic’s extra marital carryings on. In “Perhaps a family Failing” a young woman marries a man who like his father is possibly a little too fond of the drink – and although it is blackly comic, it is at the same time subtly devastating.
I am continually impressed by Elizabeth Taylor’s writing, I know I can’t possibly do it justice in my reviews. I think it an enormous pity that she is still so under-read – so many people haven’t heard of her. She is often compared to Jane Austen – and I wish that in this her centenary year – her already famous name, can start to become better recognised as that belonging to an amazing writer.
Just before I fell asleep, I finished reading an ebook, Osprey Weapon #17: The Lee-Enfield Rifle. This was a key British weapon through two World Wars and beyond, and has some degree of legendary status. I found the book mildly interesting; if I were more interested in small arms history I'm sure it would be fascinating.
I read Hisham Matar’s first novel “In the country of Men” – a few years ago and absolutely loved it. It has been a long old wait for this one – but it has been worth it.
I have seen some great reviews of this novel – but feel I can’t really do it justice. How can I put across the absolute pathos and beauty of this novel?
Two things stood out as I read Anatomy of a Disappearance. First, there was the quiet power of the language, and the author's control of it. Second, there was Hisham Matar's ability to tell a story that from the first sentence seems inevitable, yet is full of surprises (Roddy Doyle )
A tenderly written novel with Shakespearean themes, it can be read as a deeply personal account of the losses that tyranny and exile produce (TLS
The story centres on Nuri a 12 year old boy as the novel opens –who is the son of a man living in exile in Cairo. After his mother’s sudden death Nuri’s father takes them on holiday to a resort in Alexandria – it is here they meet the beautiful Mona. Both boy and father are captivated by her. When his father marries Mona – Nuri is consumed with a mixture of complex feelings – one being envy. His father sends him to boarding school in England from where he continues to think about Mona and writes to her frequently.
Two years later there is another holiday – this time to Switzerland – a country his father travels to frequently. It is here that Nuri’s father suddenly disappears – is kidnapped apparently from the bed of another woman. Nuri and Mona are faced with the possibility that they didn’t fully know the man they love. His father had once worked for the executed King of their country – is an opponent of the regime that runs the country now. The country itself is never named in this novel – but it is clear it is Libya. Mona is convinced it is this regime that is responsible for her husband’s disappearance.
The disappearance of his father shapes the years that follow for Nuri – back at school his father’s disappearance is a secret he hugs to himself – not able to bring himself to talk about it even to his closest friend, Alexei. His relationship with Mona remains complex, but changes as the years pass.
“I began to feel I had been neglecting my father. I saw him waiting in a windowless room. I obsessed about what I could do to find him. I dreamed of him often.”
There is an added poignancy to this novel for me because I know that there is an autobiographical slant to it. Hisham Matar is the son of a political dissident who was opposed to the Gaddafi regime – the family lived in exile in Cairo and it was from here that Matar’s father was abducted in 1990. The family received news in 1996 that he was alive, and then nothing for many years. In 2010 Matar heard that someone had seen his father alive in 2002 in a Libyan jail.
The prose of this novel is beautifully spare, the whole is a haunting story of loss and memory, and I absolutely loved it.