Friday, 30 August 2013

The Prodigal: Electra Considers the Queer Idea of Family

It is so because it is written. Five hearts tattooed in blue upon his wrist: one for each of us. Mother sits beneath the open sky embroidering children onto the soiled household linen. The day drenches her in a sudden light. I watch her pulling threads, quiet as breath, as she fastens another smile to an infant's face. Rex traces his hearts with a calloused finger and leans back against the trunk of the apple tree regarding his wife.  Rex, the husband of hearts. He has married a woman utterly addicted to the quality of light in his shadow. He stands just five breaths away from her. His heart beats to a distant drum,. His spheres turn to a darker music. Mother unspools another twist of thread and murmurs her prayers, calling him in. One breath for love, two for an open heart, three for each child, four for an angel's effigy. Five is the magic breath, the breath that will close the space between them in an embrace, as Rex falls towards her, helpless. I watch as he leans in for her kiss, momentarily extinguishing the light in her face. And I think: they have chosen to be lost.

The King Pays a Surprise Visit

She wears the mourning jewel, black loops of jet about her throat, its indistinct lights purling between hope and sleep. She unhooks her wings, shakes down her shoulders. He watches her reflection in the long mirror. Her spine is a string of pearls as she bends to her task and his jealous ghost leans in stupidly to get a better look. Is it his imagination or does she glance up at him now, facing the wild? A prickle of joy knits one purls one cable across his back. They are the pearly king and queen turning over the odd reliquaries of the world between them. He comes to her now, in the odd months of the year, those months when the wind blows him backwards, inverting all his desires. To kiss is sick. He longs to eat but all she can offer him is tea. Come to me she whispers, smiling a smile full of bright necklace, a smile full of crumbling opulence. Come to me. And he has no idea of his desire to punish her until he hears the soft snip of recognition as she takes out her pearl-handled knife and cuts the heart out of the possible.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Booker Longlist: The Luminaries: Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton's second novel is as suggestive, diverting and mesmerising as its title would have us hope. Set in Victorian New Zealand, it is a masterpiece of plotting and revelation. Conspiracy, secrecy, purloined letters (there is more than a nod to Poe here) revelation and fortune circle each other in the stories of the cast of twelve characters which intersect and interrupt each other for the unpacking of the central mystery.
For sheer reading pleasure Catton's novel is an out and out success. We are reminded throughout the novel that we are being told a story, and we are as captivated as children by the telling of it. The headers for each chapter which begin by dropping little clues, and end by usurping the content of the chapter are themselves beguiling. The evocation of place is compelling, the language precisely of its period. Her sense for the vernacular is spot on, her characters vivid and endearing.
Even if one were to appraise the novel simply in terms of its architecture, it is a thing of beauty, wondrously structured so that the form fully underpins the content. Catton's decision to use astrology as the frame for her story is a stroke of genius: astrology, the ever-changing patterns of the stars which men use to find purpose and pattern in their lives and motivations. The novel is structured in twelves, so it has a mathematical as well as literary pleasure to it.
Fortune is the currency of the novel, both in terms of chance and in terms of gold. We are asked to consider what is of value and then shown what desire costs.  There is an alchemical beauty in Catton's novel. Everyone is transformed, some are transfigured. Paulo Coelho says that alchemy exists so that the world becomes a better place, so that we can transform our leaden lives into gold. Catton has done something even more luminous: she has turned the world of words into something fine and precious, rare and valuable. If this isn't a contender for the prize I don't know what is.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Prodigal: Electra takes a Walk

Electra walks in the shadow, her face smudged with black light-out. Tonight she is walking with uncommon purpose. She is walking to heal her broken heart. Love for Rafael has dragged her through the graveyards and eelhouses of her ordinary life and brought her finally to this walking world, defined by vast, unboundaried ways. The moon slips out from a veil of cloud and illumines Electra making her cautious way down the broken street. She feels the chill of Rafael breathing down her neck, but when she turns there is no-one, only a cat which slinks behind a dustbin and disappears, like a magician's coin, into a sleeve of darkness.
Because he has vanished, she believes she will find her way by following her handedness. She tends towards the left. It is not much to go on, but it is something.
She follows the cracked map of her hand to find her way through the city and stands back against a nightclub wall as a gaggle of girls, clinging to each other, tip themselves into the street. It is the night of the breakneck bodice and high-heels. Somewhere a clock tolls and a neon light above her flickers on and off in red. Look out, there she goes, walking through the rat's nest of the city, still trying to find her way back to him.

The Prodigal: Rafael Dreams of Being Free

I insert myself into a landscape stitched in semi-precious stones: this edge of Rombald's Moor. It was so, it is so and it will always be so. The rocks glitter. Crows nest in the beacons of the firs, as the late sun sets a match to a sky crossed with vapour trails. I stand on the precipice, like Rombald, like something grand raised out of the rubble. In the valley a car stitches a red thread to Low Holden. Here is the place where the heart's cold bird rises up in an ugly imitation of flight. Here is the place where the shrew disappears into the skeletal heath.  I am among them, I am among this family of wild things. The nervous gorse releases its kissing perfume. I open my eyes and it is all gone in the beat of a lash. The walls here are the same splotchy white as an owl's egg. Carefully I come back to this room.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Booker Longlist: Unexploded: Alison MacLeod

Set in Brighton in 1940, Alison MacLeod's novel Unexploded has a pleasingly persuasive period cadence. The style is oddly formal, point of view shunts between characters, an omniscient narrator drops us into different character's heads and experiences without warning, and MacLeod has an unfashionable fondness for adverbs, all of which combine to situate the novel precisely in its time. MacLeod is at her best deftly undermining our expectations of the characters. No-one is quite as they seem and the novel's title, suggestive of the combustible energies between the characters, suggests the care with which they have to conduct their relationships.
The novel is not simply a period piece though. It deals with themes that are absolutely contemporary: allegiance, race, cultural misunderstanding, and terror. It suggests that what remained unexploded after the second world war, remains a persistent threat. And it achieves this with rather more grace and elegance than the tale it uses as a vehicle, for the story itself suffers at times from a curious ennui, notably during the Virginia Woolf lecture. It is a shame that this moment didn't quite come off as the character of Evelyn owes much to Woolf's writing, and it was a nice acknowledgement of that to have Woolf make a cameo appearance.
Notwithstanding minor quibbles, MacLeod has a distinct and original voice. She writes with powerful intensity about relationships and desire, most vividly of all the tragic desire to be loved which so often in this novel goes awry, with devastating consequences.
Unexploded is a novel to be admired for its intricate plotting, its psychological acuity and above all for the elegance with which MacLeod intersplices the devastating into the mundane, such that neither lose their impact.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Booker Longlist: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman: Eve Harris

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is Eve Harris's debut novel, set in the Charedi Jewish community of North London. Harris's sympathy for her characters is clear and compelling, but their voices are all very similar, which means that we never fully engage with any of them. The novel shifts perspective and time periods, and sometimes  these shifts are clunky and disrupt the narrative flow. The structure of the novel intertwines the story-lines of three separate relationships: the central one between Chani and Baruch, that between Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and his wife Rivka, and the brief and thwarted relationship between their son Avromi and his fellow law-student Shola. Of these the most interesting relationship is that between Chaim and Rivka. This relationship is the one which most powerfully ignites our sympathy and interest, so it is a shame that this storyline was not given more presence and moment in the novel. It is here that we see most fully how life in a religious community informs the life of the individual.
Underpinning all the relationships is the question of how far faith can sustain us or restrict us in the ways in which we explore what it means to love. Harris is disappointingly one-sided in her examination of this, which makes the novel seem slighter than it need have been. The themes of the novel could be thrillingly pertinent in a society which is struggling to define the role of religion, but the treatment of the themes was too often frustratingly facile.
I was surprised to find this long-listed for the Booker. I shall be even more surprised if it makes it to the shortlist.


The priest sits against the stone wall. He lives on the border of mystery and faith, way behind the frequencies of time and truth that operate their tyrannies over his daily life. The pagan signs are daubed upon the walls, but he no longer reads them. Behind him the ripped ballgown of the evening sky sheds shreds of light into the church and across the gravestones. Soon the early moon will settle in its autumn cradle, and the bell will toll him back indoors. He creaks to his feet, performs the last of his duties with a touching courtesy.
He sweeps the leaves, collects the broken skeletons of the dead birds, goes into the church and lights the evening candles against the grim shutting sky. He has reached the moment when every impulse is quietened, every jumping nerve stilled. He is certain there is a great Plan, unknown to him but nevertheless a Plan with him in mind. His duties complete he kneels, about halfway down the church, and prays for the community of the dead. He recognises them.Thinks he's almost there already. And when he has listed all those known to him privately in his heart, he returns to the outside evening and a landscape that briefly links the randomness of road, church and man in the evening. It is, he thinks, his lucky day.

Friday, 16 August 2013

King Lear

Bill Buckhurst’s touring production of King Lear, currently showing at the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury is both intimate and passionate. Starkly staged, in a simple Elizabethan style structure, the production demonstrates an elegant economy, with just eight actors playing all the parts. This enables the production's emphasis upon identity and autonomy to be subtly explored as the characters shift their allegiances and the actors shift their parts.
Joseph Marcell brings enormous power to the role of Lear, being equally convincing as a vain and arrogant king at the beginning of the play to the pitiful lost monarch at the end. If his fury with Cordelia in the opening scene seems disproportionate and unnerving, his subsequent cursing of Goneril is truly frightening, and his ultimate grief for Cordelia is profoundly affecting, moving the audience to tears.
Bethan Cuillane, who plays both Cordelia and the Fool brings warmth to both parts, though she is markedly better in the Fool's role than as Cordelia. As the Fool she illuminates and counterpoints Lear, enabling us to feel affection for him throughout his tribulations and fragmentations. As his political and mental integrity is fractured, our sympathies for the King are almost entirely directed by the tenderness and sad wisdom with which the Fool conducts her relationship with him.
The production has impressive energy and pace, but this is not without its costs, not least the forfeit of Gloucester's tragic blinding, the horror of which somehow gets lost. This is an important and powerful moment in the play and this production curiously disinvests it of its potency, leading the audience to laugh (albeit rather uncomfortably) at the bloodless plucking of the second eye. That this lost moment does not derail the production is a mark of just how superb the rest of the play is.
A rolling red storm scene is deeply chilling, and the economy of the staging is at its superb best here. Also brilliant is the scene where Gloucester 'falls' from the cliff, no longer sure which way is up or down, and we are left in no doubt that all our moral certainties have been dreadfully compromised. The music, the lighting and the choreography all contribute to the overall intimacy of the production. The lights are left up throughout the performance, a gesture towards the open-air experience of the Globe. This also has the effect of drawing the audience into the production, collapsing the distance between the audience and the stage, and making us complicit in the production's exposure of the vanity, greed and violence which undermine the political and personal relationships around which this play revolves.
Buckhurst's production is compelling and inventive, and his actors step up to give some thrilling performances.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Booker Longlist: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

It amounts to no more than 100 pages, but Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is rich with spiritual, emotional and imaginative insights. Mariology has been an important player in the construction of femininity in our society. The figure of the Virgin Mary, the human mother of the divine child, is the model of loving obedience to a higher power. In his novel Toibin imagines a more fully human Mary, a woman whose role in the life of Jesus is as much informed by doubt as it is by belief, a woman made 'wild' by the violence she has to witness.
The novel is told in Mary's voice, and it is a voice as troubling as it is beguiling. She recounts her story of the miracles and death of Jesus to her "guardians": ominous, irritable men who seem more like jailers, but who we are led to believe are the gospel writers, the founders of a new religion. From the beginning we are aware of a story that is emerging in spite of the control exerted over it by a constituency who wish a particular version of events to be confirmed. They are the Gospel writers. Here is Mary's oral account of the events.
Like the Magnificat, Mary's testimony moves to the soothing rhythms of the scriptures. The language is kept simple, tender and dark. In her account we recognise the familiar stories: the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but they are given new and more disturbing form. She tells the story of Lazarus with stark clarity, tells how his body moves uncertainly from the grave back to life. Its occurrence is indisputable, but its proof of divinity is debatable. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but he is not restored. He can barely eat soaked bread. His golden beauty is tainted by what he knows of the grave. Yes he prefigures the resurrection of Christ but in Mary's story we are prompted to consider the folly of desiring immortality, the profound impact it might have on what it means to be human.
Toibin does something brave and profound with the scattering of information we have about Mary and the amplification of this into the figure of The Virgin Mary who has been such an exalted part of Catholic Christian doctrine. In some ways Toibin's Mary still operates as a divine mediator. She extends mercy. But she does so by reminding us of what it is to be human, what it is to fail those we love. Above all The Testament of Mary sees Mary as embodying the troubled relationship between mother and son, experiencing the grief of a mother whose son will not acknowledge her 'What are you to me?', and the agony of a mother who helplessly watches her son being crucified and then abandons him to save herself.
In Toibin's crucifixion the frailty of the body is still central to the story, but it is as much Mary's body as it is Christ's: he is flesh of her flesh, his 'heart having grown from [her] heart', yet she abandons him to save her own skin, because going to him, to hold his broken body, to bury him, 'would have made no difference.' Toibin's Mary is unflinching in the grief -stricken knowledge that she could do nothing except save herself. The drama of her experience of the crucifixion re-imagines it again for us with the authentic clarity of a lived experience. 'I was there...I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.'
And finally Toibin offers us her ascension, and he does so in the simplest and loveliest of terms: a dwindling light, a soft path, a silence. 'The world has loosened...And I am whispering the words, knowing that words matter, and smiling as I say them to the shadows of the gods of this place, who linger in the air to watch me and hear me.'
The Testament of Mary is an act of immense imaginative grace and chutzpah. It takes some nerve to tackle the underpinning stories of our culture and find in them something miraculous. But Colm Toibin brings to the task such a willingness to see what is original and true that we are all by far the better for it.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele