Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Bildungsroman”

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a couple of whodunits by John Connolly I thought I would see what he wrote in another genre, and this one is fantasy of the “child entering another world” kind, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unlike those other books, however, I think this one, though it has a child protagonist, is not really for child readers. I find it rather difficult to put my finger on why I think that. On the surface, at least, it looks as though it should be good for children to read. Twelve-year-old David, mourning his dead mother, resentful of his father for remarrying, and jealous of his younger half-brother, by the end of the story has learned to cope with those things in his life. It should surely be instructive for children who face similar conditions in their lives, which many do. But somehow this one isn’t that kind of book.

The Book of Lost Things seems more violent and cruel than the other books mentioned. In the other books there is violence or bloodshed, or the threat of it (“off with his head!”), and there is cruelty (“intercision” in His Dark Materials) but here it somehow seems to be told with more relish, and seems harsher and more cruel.

In this respect it is more like The Talisman by Peter Straub and Stephen King. That book also has a twelve-year-old protagonist with a sick mother, but this one, I think, is better told, and has a much more convincing fantasy world (see my review of The Talisman here). So why did I give them both four stars? On a ten-star scale I would have given The Talisman seven stars, and this one eight.

So if you liked The Talisman I think you might like this one more, but just because it is a book about a child, don’t think it is a book for children. I suppose I might have enjoyed reading it as a child from about the age of 11 onwards, but it’s still not as children’s book.

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Outcast (book review)

The OutcastThe Outcast by Sadie Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book follows Lewis Aldridge’s life from the age of 7, when his father returns from the Second World War, to the age of 19. He grows up in an upper-middle-class commuter village in Surrey, where the fathers commute to to work in London, and the mothers supervise the servants and occasionally visit each other.

The children of the neighbourhood play and fight with each other. They go out for bike rides. and walk in the woods together, but Lewis feels increasingly cut off from them and from the adult world as well. The only exception is youngest of the neighbouring children, Kit Carmichael, who is four years younger than Lewis, but is secretly in love with him.

While the novel focuses on Lewis as the protagonist, I felt most strongly for Kit, and my heart ached for her. Perhaps that was because she was the same age as me, and I could measure her life against mine, though I think I liked Elvis Presley more than she did, but I could forgive her that. If one can measure the success of a novel by the extent to which readers identify and empathise with the characters, then this one succeeds.

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The Anatomy School (book review)

The Anatomy SchoolThe Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m in two minds about this book. At one level it is a Bildungsroman, and at another it is a picture of a period. Martin Brennan is a teenager in his last year of high school. He attends a Catholic school in Protestant Belfast, where being Catholic is a badge of identity. Martin has two friends, Kavanagh, who is an athlete, and a new boy at the school, Blaise Foley, who rejects everything that the school stands for.

At home his pious mother regularly entertains three friends of her age, oen of them a priest, and Martin helps to serve them, hears their conversations, and is sometimes himself the subject of their conversations.

The book opens with Martin at a silent retreat with his contemporaries from the school, where the expectation is that he and the others will consider a possible vocation to the priesthood. Martin’s conscience is troubled by moral and venial sins of thought word and deed, throughout the retreat, and when he gets back to school, after deciding that the priesthood is not for him, he is severely tempted to mortal sins by his new friend Blaise Foley.

After leaving school he works as a technician in the anatomy school of the university, where his friend Kavanagh is a medical student.

It was a bit difficult to work out the period in which the book is set. One clue was a reference to the blowing up of Nelson’s statue in Dublin in earl;y 1966. It was clearly after that event, but close enough for it still to be a talking point, so as far as I could determine from such clues in the story, it took place in 1966-68. It was a time when I was in the UK as a student, though I was never in Belfast.

One feature of the book is the very detailed descriptions of everyday life — the composition and making of sandwiches for tea, noises and sounds like lift doors clanging. In that it reminded me of A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood. That book was set somewhere in north-west England, and gave a very vivd picture of the place and period, and the foibles of the people, though with considerably more humour than The Anatomy School. But A Touch of Daniel was published closer to the time, and The Anatomy School was published in 2001, which makes some of the close detail suspect, and one of the anachronisms that stood out for me was when Martin tells someone that he had a job “at the Uni”. I never heard anyone call a university a uni during my time in the UK, and only learnt of it much later, via the internet. It may be that it was a peculiarly Irish term, that started in Belfast before reaching other parts of the UK, but for me it made much of the fine detail throughout the book rather suspect.

On the other hand, there were some things that reminded be very strongly of when I myself was Martin Brennan’s age. I went to a Methodist School, not a Catholic one, and in Johannesburg, not Belfast. But I hung out a lot with two or three friends, as Martin did, and our conversations were not all that dissimilar. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it might have been better if some of the superfluous (and suspect) detail had been dropped — it would have made the characters and their intreractions stand out better.

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The white shadow: an African Bildungsroman

The White ShadowThe White Shadow by Andrea Eames

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose the best way to describe the genre of this novel is a Bildungsroman, set in the time of Zimbabwe’s Second Chimurenga, forty years ago. Was it as long ago as that? And the author wasn’t even born then.

Tinashe is a young Shona boy who grows up in a rural village, ocasionally visited by his rich uncle from the city and his cousin. He dreams of going to school and university, like his uncle, but his cousin doesn’t seem to value these things. Tinashe’s younger sister, Hazvinei, is strange, and communes with spirits. Her brother, and other people, sometimes find her rather frightening, but he feels obliged to care for her, even when it threatens to disrupt his education.

In some ways it is like an African version of David Copperfield or The catcher in the rye, but it is also bound up with the surreal and unpredictabe world of Shona mythology, where the spirits can make people feel invincible at one moment and dash all their hopes the next.

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Growing up in Durban

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie — a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I’d just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn’t on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don’t feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me — she referred to the university as “uni”, an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the “uni” today, but in my — our– time it was always “varsity”. Another term I don’t remember using at that period is “airhead”, though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against “liberals” and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because they’re against integration”. It was just the opposite of the usual complaint — that liberals were against segregation — so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that’s an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn’t identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys’ boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls’ day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a “coming of age” novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I’m rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.


[1] Woozer – a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

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