By David McLaughlin
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale’s previous work of non-fiction, was a best seller and a multi-award winner. It was a wonderful book that told the story of a Scotland Yard detective, Mr Whicher, who doggedly pursued his line of inquiry in a gruesome murder, despite the odds being stacked against him. Summerscale’s latest release, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, is another tour de force. It vividly charts the downfall of Isabella Robinson, a married Victorian lady who follows her heart and suffers the consequences. Stuck in a horrible marriage to Henry, a materialistic brute, Isabella takes refuge in her daydreams, all of which she beautifully records in her diary. Chief among her daydreams is Dr Lane, a fetching, married neighbour, who is intellectually astute and emotionally sensitive. The two become good friends and according to the diaries, lovers. Unfortunately for Isabella, her husband discovers these diaries and uses them against her in the most devastating way: as evidence against her in divorce proceedings.
What today seems like the reasonable longings of an unhappy woman, in the early Victorian period were seen as deeply shocking—the ramblings of a mad woman. Reading the court scenes in Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace reminds us just how far we have come in terms of gender equality. It is incredible how hypocritical and unbalanced the whole process was in Isabella’s time. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is an enlightening and gripping read. You feel strongly for Isabella and the period is a fascinating one. The Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was a new institution which was beginning to make divorce easier to achieve, and the literary world was alight with the Brontes’ romanticism and Flaubert’s famous adulteress, Emma Bovary. There are many surprises in this often sad tale of a remarkable lady.
For this year’s Writers’ Festival, I felt it my bookseller’s duty to read Salvage the Bones, the second novel by the official ‘next big thing’, Jesmyn Ward. Salvage the Bones is one of the most visceral pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s really down in the dirt stuff—stark and so memorable. It reminded me of Junot Diaz’s book of stories Drown. Like the main character in that collection, daily life for Esche, the hero in Salvage the Bones, is pretty fragile. Her mother has died, she is newly pregnant and her family is poor, black and battling it out in the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Added to this burden is nature itself in the form of Hurricane Katrina, which is forming over the Gulf.
What Esche does have is an innate intelligence and a loving heart. She is a beautiful, classic character in every sense of the word. To the observer her life would read like a long list of negative statistics—a victim of society—but of course she is so much more than that. The bond between her and her three brothers gets her through daily life. One of her brothers, Skeetah, is so devoted to his pit bull dog and her litter of puppies that it totally consumes him. Dog breeding and dog fighting offer ways out of the grinding poverty for him, if only temporarily. For Esche, it’s the Greek myths she has picked up at school that help her to make sense of her circumstances. It’s all hard-going material but brilliantly written—poetic and powerful.
After Salvage the Bones, Sadie Jones’s The Uninvited Guests seemed like an entirely frivolous read! Ghosts, manor houses crumbling underfoot, steam trains ripping through the countryside and all those up and coming commoners eyeing off the silverware—it all seems frightfully silly in comparison! The year is 1912 and the occasion is the birthday party of the young lady of the house, Emerald Torrington. A small group of friends and family have assembled at Sterne when the news that there has been a crash on a nearby branch line is announced. A group of crash survivors make their way to the house and are admitted into the morning room, but nothing, NOTHING! will disrupt the plans for Emerald’s simply smashing birthday party! So the survivors are given a cup of tea and the door is closed on them, so that the fun can begin!
I can’t say much more without giving the whole thing away suffice it to say there are many twists and turns, and those who appear to be alive may well not be. The Uninvited Guests is as light as a feather, interesting and amusing. David McLaughlin