An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 2

2013-08-17 15.51.49I started on my first day in Edinburgh with something on the Fringe, and something in the main Festival, so, of course, it was only right to begin Day 2 with a trip to the International Book Festival.  We went to listen to Sarah Churchwell, a Professor at UEA talk about her new book Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby.  

I picked this event because Gatsby is a favourite book, it’s somehow back in the Zeitgeist because of the recent Baz Luhrmann film, and I’ve seen Sarah Churchwell on review programmes on the television and she seems like a knowledgeable person of strong opinion.  To be honest, I didn’t think I’d come away from little tented village which hosts the book festival with a copy of her publication, but I found the talk and discussion so interesting that I followed her to the book shop and had my newly bought copy signed.

What was so interesting about the discussion was that it is the story of the story.  Churchwell has researched the events that were in the news at the time that Fitzgerald was writing the novel, written in 1924 but set in 1922, and she has questioned every trope of what we presume we know about the 1920s.  Were the women wearing short skirts?  No.  Were they dancing the Charleston? No.  Did a green traffic light mean Go? Not necessarily, but sometimes.

During her research she came across reports of a notorious double murder in New Jersey in the early 1920s, which evidence indicates that Fitzgerald did read.  There were startling points of overlap between titbits in the news reports and details in the novel.  Using the news reports as well as other contemporary material, Churchwell has built a factual story of the times in which the novel was written, Fitzgerald’s writing process and the novel itself.

That she has interrogated every assumption that we have about the period, the roaring 20s, those images which we now accept as the shorthand for the era, and has found that they are not accurate, is what I found so interesting, as it is those details which create the pictures in our mind’s eye and the richness of the tapestry of we weave when we are immersed in a good book.  I’m looking forward to reading her work so that I can repaint those pictures.

After an afternoon spent chatting, I went to the Summerhall to see HeLa, written and performed by my friend Adura Onashile.  I’m still buzzing from the experience, and it needs a blog post all of its own, which will come(!).  Afterwards I had a drink with Adura and I had what I’ve been told is a ‘true festival experience’ of having quite a major conversation with the people with whom we shared the table in the bar.  We heard what they’d seen, and we showed off what we’d seen, and discussed our wish lists and future bookings, given the randomness of the encounter and the sheer number of things that are on, had a surprising amount of overlap – and of course took the opportunity to impress upon them the importance of their seeing HeLa before the end of the Festival.

Another day has dawned, and with it sunny blue skies, so I am optimistic for another fun day, and maybe today I will see a unicyclist!

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An Edinburgh Festival Diary Day 1

2013-08-16 16.33.25Yesterday I had my first taste of the full Edinburgh Festival experience.  And even though it didn’t start until the middle of the afternoon when I arrived at Waverley station, as it comprised listening to blues played on a home made guitar made from an old radio in a jazz bar basement, and  experiencing the induction to a life on ‘New Earth’ at an out of town climbing centre, I think it counts as a proper initial immersion.

John Hunt does Afternoon Blues and Swing using his own home made instruments.  There was a short legged coffee table on which he stamps out his percussion section, and a first guitar made from a wooden shelf, with built in amplifier and microphone.  It’s worth descending the stairs to the underground bar on a sunny afternoon for his ingenuity alone, but he delivers his set with dry wit and a gravelly voice, mashing up his own compositions with reinterpretations of early 20th century classics like Someone to Watch over Me.

All round it was a very satisfactorily disorientating introduction to the Festival.

After refreshments, it was down to the Conference Centre to pick up the bus to Leaving Planet Earth.  The bus ride is only the first part of the experience of ‘jumping’ from Old Earth, a dying planet ravaged by war and unrest, to New Earth, a twin planet of bright colours and endless opportunities.  At the Ratho Climbing Centre, doubling as the induction centre for new arrivals on New Earth, we learnt about the great future we will share, so long as we can avoid The Pull of memories of Old Earth.  The Pull can turn people into Empties who cannot go on and who endanger the success of the project, so have to be taken on the Path.

We’ve been promised that, in return for our pledge to put the survival of the human species ahead of our own individualism, we will live a great new life on New Earth so long as we can sever all our memory and emotional ties with Old Earth.

As the show progressed, and we were led from space to space around the concrete and iron space of the climbing centre, it became clear that all may not be well in the New Earth, and that we may not have come to the better place of freedom where we can satisfy our own desires.

How sane are the leaders of the project?  Have we been dragged into a cult of personality? And  who will decide if we are to be sacrificed in the interests of an idea of a higher plan?

While some of the speeches were a little too laboured, the overall experience of the show has lingered in my memory.  It is almost that this morning the impression of the experience has improved.  The way that GridIron has used the industrial scale of the  climbing centre is very effective, and evocative  of what might be a purpose built landing point for a new colony.  The way the audience is moved around, in a choreographed and timed fashion, adds to the impression of a busy working facility.  Sometimes each of the three groups is alone, sometimes we all emerged into the central area, where we could see each other all arrayed along the various levels of the raised walkways.

The show’s literature warns that there are stairs to climb, which is true, and that there are loud noises and strobe effects, which I thought were relatively minor hazards.  What they failed to mention is that the promenade staging presents quite a challenge for anyone suffering from vertigo or a fear of heights.  I found the open grilled external walkways and stairways extremely challenging, and I was not alone in this; there was also no mention that there were no toilet breaks and no refreshments available.

It’s definitely worth seeing, but take some water, a person whose hand you can hold on the stairs, and be prepared to miss a few minutes if you need a ‘comfort break’.

All in all, not a bad start to my Festival experience…….

Two Russian Evenings at the Proms

2013-07-29 18.55.23It’s at the point where ignorance meets interest that I have most enjoyment, I think.

I don’t know a great deal about classical music, or any music really, but (and I wonder is it OK to say this about any art form) I know what I like.  Or I know what I like when I hear it, and I do try to put myself in the way of new things every now and again.

For the last few years I have usually made it to a couple of the Proms concerts each season.  The selection of which particular ones is a function of comparing my diary with that of my concert going buddy S, her preferences (she’s the one with an education in music) and the availability of tickets.

This year we went to two concerts, both on Mondays, a week apart, and both with a distinctly Russian flavour.

The first was Prom 21 , and then Prom 30;  different orchestras, different soloists and conductors, just an overlap of composers.  I can’t really tell you about the virtuosity of any of the performers, or the tone of the orchestra, nor indeed where any of the pieces stand in the context of the oeuvres of any of the composers.  What I can tell you about is the percussion.

It’s probably the low brow’s response to an orchestral concert, to watch the drama of the orchestra, to comment on the extrovert flamboyance of the leader, or the sparkliness of the evening dresses worn by the women players.  But if part of the experience wasn’t watching them, they wouldn’t be sitting on an illuminated stage, and there wouldn’t be television cameras recording for subsequent broadcast on BBC4.

My first reaction to seeing the stage is to count the percussion instruments arranged across the back, and then to count the players.  Lots of instruments and only a couple of percussionists means a variety of sounds but lots of running about for them.  If the players are numerous, then it’s going to be loud and there will be much anticipation watching them prepare and play.  It’s one of the yardsticks for my enjoyment.

Shostokovich’s Symphony Number 11 at Prom 21 was the most exciting thing I’ve seen at the Proms for a long time.  Not only is there a tremendous range of loud and soft, light and dark, folk tune and jagged sound, there were no fewer than 8 percussionists.  My attention was immediately focussed on the back row of the orchestra, and they all had a lot of work to do, especially on the timpani and the snare drum; but it was the man at the end, sitting beside the tubular bells whom I had to watch.  I thought of his as Number 8.

It’s a long symphony, almost an hour, and he spent most of it sitting back on his high stool, arms folded, knees akimbo.  He might have been asleep.  Every time my attention went to another part of the stage for any length of time, I had to keep checking back on Number 8.  If he was going to do something, I didn’t want to miss it.  The timpanist and the two people on the big gongs were dramatic and energetic, but they couldn’t keep me from worrying that if Number 8 moved and hit something, I might miss it.  Then, about 55 minutes into the piece, Number 8 put on his glasses.  At last his moment!  A peel of bells, on the tubular bells with one hand and an upturned bell with the other.  It was the perfect release for the climactic moment of the concert.

The crowd went wild (although they may not all have been as focussed on Number 8 as I was).

I’ve subsequently watched part of the concert again, as it was broadcast a week or so later, and there I am, in the shot of the close up of the conductor, in the audience, applauding, just to prove I was there.

Vermeer & Music: The Art of Love & Leisure at The National Gallery

In June I spent an evening in the National Gallery with my drawing class sitting sketching in the room displaying three Vermeer paintings of women with musical instruments.  A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal are part of the gallery’s permanent collection, while The Guitar Player is on temporary loan from Kenwood House while that building is under repair.

On that evening, we sat on our folding stools and focussed on the composition of the painting we had chosen to study, and in the process focussed very much on the shapes and the geometry of each work.  In the couple of hours we were there other visitors peered over our shoulders and spent time looking at the paintings, but there was no overwhelming crush; when there are so many other things to look at too, the general visitor scans the walls and pauses rarely.

For this special exhibition, Vermeer and Music, the curators have moved these three paintings to the basement rooms of the Sainsbury Wing and have built a small show around them.  It includes musical instruments as well as paintings of musical subjects by Dutch painters working at the same time as Vermeer in the ‘Golden Age’.

At first I was pleasantly surprised at the low cost of the ticket, only £3.50 with my Art Fund Pass, but when I realised that the paintings, with only a couple of exceptions, are already in the National Gallery Collection, or owned by the Queen, and the instruments have come from one of the London colleges of music, it dawned on me that although not always together in one building, most of the pieces on display are usually available to see free of charge somewhere in London.

I usually don’t pay the additional money for an audio guide to exhibitions, but as we weren’t able to go on one of the days when there are live recitals of contemporary music on ancient instruments, on this occasion I did pay the extra.  And it was worth it because it meant I could hear what the instruments would have sounded like.

I have read newspaper reviews in which the art critics have been less than complimentary about the ‘art’ element of the exhibition, because of the focus more on the social and musical components of the works on display.  But for me, having spent that evening looking so intently at the geometry of the paintings, it was fascinating to hear about the fashions of the dresses and the importance of the displays of wealth, of the carpet on the tables and the paintings on the walls, and that not all of the young woman were as demure as we might think think them.  A musician also spoke about the way the models’ hands were positioned on the instruments; that this person was clearly an accomplished player for the angle of her hand, and she was about to play this or that type of note.  But then again, it’s always the story of a thing that attracts me.

There are instruments from the period on display; ornately carved and painted harpsichords and virginals, as well as lutes and guitars.  Other than the very fact of their survival, it was interesting to see inside the harpsichords, at their construction and the  angles of the strings, and to learn that the reason we can see them at such different heights in the various paintings is that they didn’t have legs, but were instead placed on tables or stands to suit the owner.

I enjoyed it, and would recommend it for the insight into social history of the time, but I do think we should be alert to this apparent sleight of hand to get us to pay for things which are usually free of charge.

‘The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable’

2013-07-31 17.05.35This was my first experience of a Punchdrunk production, and I’m still not sure if that is the appropriate description of them or me after the experience.

A friend chivvied me into buying the ticket some months ago, when the only information published about the production was its name and that it would be staged in a location within Zone 1 of the London Transport system.   I knew only what I had read, that the company specialise in site specific performances, a form of immersion theatre in which the audience promenades through the space, and forms an integral part of the whole.  I also guessed that disorientation would be involved.

The show takes place in a former post office sorting building beside Paddington railway station, so truly on the very fringe of what might be described as central London.  Given an entry time of 7:20, we queued through zigzag barriers before being granted entry to a goods lift in a group of about 15.  We were each given a plastic mask which we wore throughout the night.  I paid special attention to what my friend was wearing so that I could identify her later on(!).

We were welcomed into Temple Studios, the fictional Hollywood institution within which two tragic parallel stories of infidelity would be played out.  The lift stopped and the doors opened.  As the last person in, I stepped out, as did my companion, and a young woman, and then the door was slammed behind us.  We were in a dimly lit, deserted concrete corridor.  The young woman, separated from her friends became a little hysterical and immediately reached for her phone to  text for help.  She stayed with us for a little while, until we came across more people and then we lost her in the crowd.

Nothing is well illuminated, apart from the stairs, so most of the evening we wandered around in semi darkness and gloom.  Occasionally we encountered some action and drama; other times we examined small rooms filled with props and accumulated ephemera.  The actors, identifiable mainly because of their absence of masks, walked from dramatic encounter to more dramatic scene.  Some of the audience, presumably those in the know, elected to follow a particular performer, so for those of us still feeling our way, a quiet space would suddenly be filled with a rush of people, a scene would be played out, and then the crowd would disperse some on the heels of one actor, the rest in the wake of the other.

The location of the drama in a film studio afforded the opportunity for ‘play within a play’, or ‘film action within a play’ doubling effects, and we saw several scenes of infidelity both on sound stages and in offset caravans.  We also heard the same song sung by two different men in drag in two different locations, and witnessed a murder, but there were a number of sequences I had read about in newspaper reviews which we didn’t see at all.

Part of the point of the shows is that every person’s experience of it is different, and that each one should be unsettling.  I, for example, kept having to reassure myself in the gloom that ‘health ‘n’ safety’ would mean that there was very little chance of me falling down a hole, my own particular fear of walking around in dark places (not unreasonably I should say as those circumstances have twice caused me to end up at a hospital Casualty).

I enjoyed the experience; the peering behind doors and walking around trying to work out what was going on, but I didn’t ever manage to grasp any real sense of narrative, nor achieve any feeling of involvement with the characters, as none of them really made enough of an impression for me to recognise them if I saw them again.  The sheer scale of it is however something to admire, as well as the extent to which it manages to disorientate; how many floors are there?  Have we been this way before? Is this sand/water/wood chips under foot?

Masking the audience also adds a strange element.  we were easily identified as having the role of voyeurs, but no single person was recognisable.  I found it a little unnerving, but for others it seemed to deprive them of any manners, and I did find myself jostled my view deliberately impeded on a number of occasions.    And it was very hot inside the plastic of the mask…… I do hope they clean them between shows……

If you’ve not tried it, I recommend it as an experience.

‘A Season in the Congo’ at the Young Vic

I booked the tickets for the current production of A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic months ago, before they even knew what the auditorium layout was going to be, when you couldn’t see where you would be sitting and all you could say was the price you were prepared to pay.  I booked it knowing nothing about the play and solely on the strength of the pre publicity that the lead would be taken by Chiwetel Ejiofer.

I’ve been following his career since I had a front row seat to see him and Bill Nighy in Blue Orange at the National Theatre, (online research has revealed that this must have been in 2000), and although he has performed on the stage to much acclaim since, this was my first opportunity to see him again.

So it didn’t really matter what the play was about; but inevitably on my way there, I did start to interrogate myself on the degree of my ignorance.  What I know about the Congo is limited to the horrific news reports of its recent bloody history, and to my reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  

About Patrice Lumumba I knew even less.  Probably the first time I’d heard his name was when I was newly arrived in Moscow in the 1990s.  My Russian teacher’s main employment was as a lecturer at Moscow’s Lumumba People’s Friendship University.  When he first told me the name of the institution, despite its incongruous sound, I thought Lumumba was just another Russian word I’d never heard before; and so he had to explain to me that it was the name of an post independence African leader undone by Western capitalist colonial  interference (and thereby confirming his belief in the general ignorance of those who had not benefited from a Russian education.)

I think it would be fair to say that my understanding of Lumumba’s role and his death having seen the play is only a little further forward: he was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Congo after it gained independence from Belgium, and he was undone by colonial interference, leaving the way open for Mobutu, a figure more acceptable to ‘the west’, to take over.

The play itself, with all its agitprop creakiness, is just a framework around which has been woven a tremendous theatrical experience.  The cast mingle in the audience before the play kicks off, chatting and suggesting the purchase of beer from the stall onstage; and many of the seats are plastic chairs arranged around small tables in a sunken area in the middle of the auditorium.  There is music both live and recorded and astonishing dancing and movement.  The cast of a dozen or so seem like many more and they transform themselves from nightclub dancers to bloody fighters seamlessly while we watch them pulse and move onstage.

There is puppetry, giant papier mache heads represent the Belgian vested interests undermining independence, and vultures arrive to pick over the carcasses at the end of protests.  The all black casts put on plastic piggy white noses to signify when they are portraying white characters and there are some excellent performances.

It is, however, Chiwetel Ejiofor who carries the evening.  It is the depth and nuance that he gives to his character that gives the play heart; he is an idealist, keen to forge a united country, but he is blind to the betrayals of his associates and fails to predict the impact of the international interference.  Betrayed by his allies, there is an inevitability to his death.  He is up against too many malign forces to be able to fight them all and maintain his ideals.  It was a vocally rich and physically powerful performance, and even though I did feel there were some longueurs in the evening, to see him act was worth the price of admission any day.

Mexico A Revolution in Art 1910-1940 at the Royal Academy

2013-07-09 11.40.13This exhibition on Mexican art currently showing in the upper galleries of the Royal Academy is a bit puzzling, not least for the low ratio of Mexican artists represented.

I’m not at all knowledgeable about Mexican art,.  What I do know is a mishmash of basically unconnected things gleaned from my experience of visiting Diego Rivera’s and Frida Kahlo’s houses in Mexico City, and seeing some of the Rivera murals in the Palacia Nacional there, twenty years ago or so.  In truth, I only visited these places because the guide books recommended them as the things to do in the City.  Throw into the mix the vague history of Trotsky being assassinated with an  icepick in the back, a teenage reading of Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, and more recently Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and you’ve pretty much covered what I know about Mexico in the early 20th century.

I’m not really any the wiser after having been around this exhibition.  It seems that one of the main problems with curating a show about important Mexican art from the period is that most of it is in the form of large murals which are still in situ in public buildings in the country.  In fact the Revolutionary government specifically commissioned major murals depicting the history making it the cornerstone of Mexican art in the period.

In the absence of this key element, this exhibition instead focuses on the art of artists from other countries who happened to pitch up in Mexico during this period, which is a different story.  From the evidence on the walls it seems that quite a few people did pass through at various times.  Some went on purpose, drawn by the idea of communist and revolutionary ideals, the desire to see what Rivera and his fellow muralists were doing, and to enjoy a bit of sunshine; others just happened there by accident, waiting for a US visa to be renewed or, like Trotsky, not welcome in other countries.

I think I needed a bit more explanation to properly understand how the work of all the artists on show really fit together, if they do at all.  According to Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard the catalogue accompanying the show provided an interesting hypothesis, but that seems a bit of a cheat, if none of it was evident from the works on display.

I was struck by the similarity between a number of the works by Mexican artists to the tourist paintings that I saw everywhere when I visited the country. The bold colours, stylised images have become the cliché of their art, and I’d like to have understood if these really were revolutionary early in the 20th century.

 Many of the most striking images were photographs, stark images of the war, sombrero wearing men brandishing rifles, carefuly composed groups standing over dead bodies.  It was hard to elicit exactly what we were looking at, trying to remember the name of the painting it reminded me of.  (Turns out after a bit of research to be a muddle in my memory of Goya’s Third of May 1808 and Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian)

What with worrying about that, and talking about how impressed I had been by the Rivera murals in Mexico City, the exhibition definitely provoked conversation and discussion, unfortunately it was more about the things the show failed to explain or illuminate rather than those that it did.

And don’t go expecting to see much by Kahlo, there is but a single tiny miniature.

Seeing the Art in Portcullis House

2013-07-09 17.32.22Portcullis House wouldn’t seem to be the obvious choice for an ‘art tour’ – it’s part of the Parliamentary Estate, in plain language, a building containing Committee rooms and offices for Members of Parliament.  It’s built directly above Westminster tube station, and dates from the extension of the station for the Jubilee Line.  But, in line with my current project of trying out new things in London, when I saw that they offer tours on the Fridays when there is scheduled to be no sitting in the House, it seemed like a good opportunity to see inside a building I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise visit and therefore was a  thing to add to the list.

It turns out that it’s not a brilliant place for art, what it does have is a collection of portraits, selected, by a cross party Parliamentary Committee, more on the basis of the subject of the painting than the quality of its execution.  They seek to have portraits of all significant parliamentarians, representing the first this, the first that, the longest serving the other.  The tour was confined to the corridors of the first floor of the building, where there are a number of the Committee Rooms, satisfyingly like the ones seen on the television news. It may be that all the good paintings are on the higher floors.

It was the stories about the works, and the paintings of the House of Commons in session, packed with faces and bodies all scrunched up together on the benches, that were the most interesting.  There is no hiding the vanity of those who actively seek public office.  The works I found the most satisfying were not portraits at all.

Print for a Politician by Grayson Perry, a monochrome line etching, was like a map of prejudice, and then I found this interview with him about it

Gerald Scarfe has gifted a couple of his caricatures to the Collection, one of Thatcher at war and, to be even handed, one of Blair at War.

The tour group were standing in a corridor outside a busy committee room when we had to stand to one side to allow a group of people, besuited, lanyards bumping against their chests, phones pinned to their ears, to pass by and go into the room.  The guide had just started to speak again, when another group came through.  I recognised Oliver Letwin, a Cabinet Minister, leading the pack, and looking much more diminutive than I would expect (but then so many people are).  It began to feel like one of those comedy skits showing an apparently inexhaustible supply of people appearing from around the corner and going into a room which must already be overfull.  What with that, the passage of several members of the government, and it looking like a scene from The Thick  of It, it wasn’t perhaps that surprising that David Cameron thought I was smiling at him when he walked by and gave me a nod of acknowledgement.

Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had the same, half smiling, a little vacant expressions on their faces.  I’m not sure what my face would say if I was walking along a corridor towards a meeting, but it is unlikely that it would have that slightly bland, slightly blank expression.  It must be something they learn to do; an expression for walking about the place when you don’t know who you might see……rather like many of the portraits on display.

It turns out that the House of Commons was sitting on Friday to discuss the European referendum,and there was some kind of side meeting of the Conservative Party members mid morning.

All our guide could say afterwards was ‘That never happens. That really never happens.’

‘Gone to the Forest’ by Katie Kitamura

2013-06-25 21.21.16There are three pages of quotes from positive reviews at the front of this book; some of them have even been written by people of whom I’ve heard. I referred to them a few times while I was reading the novel to check on what it was  I was missing, and there was always a ‘the Lady doth protest too much me thinks’ whiff about it.  It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realise that only the first page relates to this book, the rest are about the author’s first novel; in my own defence, I have to say that none of the comments on any of the three pages bear any relation to my experience of the book.

Set in an unspecified composite country on the verge of anti colonial violence, the novel is a fable about a father and son losing control of the land and their lives.  The father one of the early settlers had claimed a large tract of land on which he has lived for 40 years, wealthy from the fish he has bred in the river.  Tom, the son, has grown up under the weight of his father’s power and knows little of what goes on in the outside world.  A girl arrives, ostensibly to be affianced to the son, but instead takes to the father’s bed.  Meanwhile a civil war starts to encroach on the farm.

The most interesting thing about reading the book for me was the style of writing, which is cool and distancing; it tells rather than shows, and is staccato. With short sentences.  Where a more standard approach would be to punctuate between phrases with a comma.  A full stop is used instead.  It is very effective in making the reader aware of the book as a contrivance, as a thing of its own; it discourages an immersion into the tale, instead you are always aware of an edginess to the proceedings.

However, given that the land, and possession of the land, is, we are told, so important to the characters, it is surprisingly sketchily drawn and I had no picture of it in my minds eye.  Nor did I have any insight into the psychology of the characters.  The father is allegedly a strong man who has hewn enough of a living out of a piece of land that he can afford to import lobsters for dinner, and yet he surrenders the farm without fighting for it. It felt like an exercise in writing about a landscape that doesn’t exist, peopled by characters with no self awareness nor interior thought.

The only reason I read this book to the end was to see if I could fathom what the people who wrote so positively about it had seen in it.  In the end, I did grow to quite like the cover.

Have you read it?  Did it engage you?

‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

2013-06-18 17.31.23This was a book which once I started it, whenever I was away from it, all I could think about was when I could return to find out what was going to happen next.  It was a tremendous pleasure, and one I’ve found with sad rarity  recently; I’m so much happier when I’m immersed in a book than when the volume I’m carrying around with me feels more like a chore than an enjoyment.

The book opens as the protagonist Yvonne Carmichael, a successful woman in her early 50s sits in court accused of a serious crime.  The case has been going well, but with one question from a barrister she realises that she is about to be undone.  The novel then unfolds the story of a brief illicit affair begun in the Palace of Westminster as Yvonne is giving evidence to a Parliamentary committee, and undertaken in a series of unlikely dark corners in central London leading to a violent and dramatic conclusion.

It’s a clever novel, as not only does it have that thriller element, asking the question how did Yvonne end up in court, and revealing the information at a satisfying pace, not too slowly (which can drive this reader mad) and not to quickly (so you can feel the tension building), but it has at its centre a highly experienced successful woman who can both be analytical enough to be aware of the recklessness of her own behaviour, and rash enough to carry on doing it anyway and blinkered enough believe the stories she tells herself about her lover.  Throw in the complex layers of deception and delusion, as well as the hint at polemic on the double standards applied in society about the sexual behaviour of women contrasted with that of men, and here is a book well worth getting your teeth into.

There is a recurring metaphor underlying the unfolding narrative.  In a scientific experiment using monkeys with their babies, the floor of their cages was progressively heated making it impossible for them to sit or stand on it.  After climbing the walls in an attempt to escape evidently eventually all the mothers would finally resort to standing on their babies.  There is always the question of what will a person do to save themselves, knowing that the answer will rarely be palatable.

The novel is also interesting from a craft point of view and the way in which it is constructed.  Much of it is written in the second person present tense, in the form of letters written to her unnamed lover by Yvonne late at night on her home computer.  It affords variety from the first person used in the rest of the book.  First person present tense is a tricky form, but it works here because the tension in the narrative is all about Yvonne, her experiences and more importantly, her perceptions; we have to be close enough to her thinking to share it, even if we as readers are telling her all the while that she shouldn’t believe everything he tells her.

My only quibble would be with the neatness of the ending, but by then I’d had such an enjoyable read that I was in forgiving mood.

I should declare a small interest here; I was very fortunate to have Louise as a mentor for a year and she was tremendously helpful to me.  I admire her writing, and could see in this book the traces of much of the advice she gave me about narrative and pace.  It  is, for me, her best book so far.

Have you read it?  Do you agree?

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