What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

Elizabeth Taylor and The Walking

 - Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Novels of Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor's first book was published in 1945; she wrote twelve novels, and six collections of short stories, before her death in 1975. Taylor was her married name, and she could have easily written under her maiden name of Coles, saving the inevitable confusion that still arises with her name ('I didn't know she wrote books as well as being an actor'). But she didn't, and I think it fell against her, although there is something admirable about the way she just pressed on, clearly comfortable being just who she was. A life long member of the Communist Party, and a person capable of leading a complicated love life, her novels show no sign of her political leanings. Nearly always set in the secure realm of the English bourgeois, her characters, particularly the women and girls, often have extremely rich inner lives, that rarely extend from beneath the surface.
Belonging was Elizabeth Taylor's last book, published posthumously, and it's quite a slight, almost set piece. An English couple go to Istanbul on holiday, and are befriended by an American woman, Martha, a free spirit. Tragedy strikes, and Amy, the English wife, finds herself returning home a widow. Martha extends a generous hand of friendship, which Amy ungraciously accepts. What follows is a rather excruciating comedy of manners, none of the characters is likeable, and none are apologetic for their rather bad behaviour. Perhaps not her best work, never the less it made me want to read more, and find out why the likes of Elizabeth Jane Howard, Sybille  Bedford, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Bowen championed her work.
The Wedding Group has a far more interesting premise: a very naive young girl, Cressy, wants to leave her family commune, and finds herself living above an antique shop in the village. The commune in the story is based on Pigotts, the property that belonged to the family of the sculptor Eric Gill, that Taylor lived near when she was young. While no one quite captures a quasi religious commune like Iris Murdoch did in her early novels, Taylor comes very close in her description of the oppressive regime of the messianic paternal character of Cressy's grandfather. It's no surprise when Cressy falls into an unsuitable relationship with a fairly careless man, and the story takes another turn as Cressy is incorporated into his, and his mother Ivy's life. Micge is a surprising character-very 
chic, very manipulative and completely friendless. Elizabeth Taylor's insights and observations into the lives of her characters are often subtle and very uncomfortable, made through the smallest details, without her actually spelling them out. 

In a Summer Season is a small, perfect novel about a widow who remarries a man ten years her junior. She is wealthy, he is feckless, and yet it seems quite reasonable that they have found each other. Part of the story is told through the correspondence of a maiden aunt who lives with the unlikely couple, and her critical eye casts a very realistic, if rather ungrateful, overview on the couple. The secondary characters in this book are far more interesting than the main ones: a teenage daughter's crush on the local vicar is particularly vivid, and the exotic Araminta who appears half way through the book is the swinging sixties personified, casting a bright light that leaves everyone slightly dazed.
I'm glad Elizabeth Taylor's books are all being republished. They may be from another time but they don't seem dated. Although they're not particularly eventful, I'm finding them very absorbing,and I look forward to reading the rest of Taylor's oeuvre. Louise Pfanner


The Walking by Laleh Khadivi


The second novel by this young Iranian-born writer, The Walking is a fictionalised account of what happened to a pair of Iranian-born Kurdish brothers in the aftermath of the Revolution.
Khadivi, herself, was born in Esfahan in 1977 and fled with her family to Belgium, Puerto Rico then Canada and the United States. She knows what she's talking about. As an MFA graduate of Mills College and a creative writing fellow at Emory, she also knows how to talk about it.
In 1979 Iran, this pair of young brothers, Saladin and Ali, are forced to participate in a massacre of fellow Kurds thus demonstrating their loyalty to the regime. They flee in terror, carrying their trauma as they walk across mountains, sail in ships and finally fly into the United States. Even as they move forward, their memories reveal what they left behind.
Khadivi shows her fluency in more than one language and culture by her use of arresting imagery in lyrical writing. The first sentence of the book, 'Everywhere we are leaving', could be spoken by any number of ethnic, religious or political minorities in hostile societies. 
The age of these two ragged boys is not clear, but they are neophytes everywhere in worlds beyond their mountain village. At one stage, they join an archaeological dig to find a safe place to sleep and be fed. There, Saladin uncovers a solid gold goat, big enough to fit inside his mouth when the supervisor, in an act of generosity, returns it to him. In Iran, Saladin liked Elvis songs, James Bond and was familiar with the Voice of America radio. To those in Australia who ask why Arabs and Islamic people 'want to come to our country', western culture is reaching into the remotest corners on earth-whether by entertainment or war. 
Saladin's physical suffering, his constant yearning to belong, to find a family and people who physically resemble him-his profound sense of homelessness-was a punch in the guts. It made me think about how we treat strangers, foreigners, homeless people, asylum seekers, people who are different, people who carry our group stereotypes. 
Oh woe that there are today so many million refugees, people who have suffered and will continue to suffer like this; and we debate about them as if they're worth less than an animal sold for slaughter. Khadivi has written with an understated strength and a shining humanity, as if of her own father or brother. Her voice is more powerful than any political campaign. In relishing the pleasure of her language, the reader will be unable to resist falling into compassion. Cecile Yazbek