Monday 17 May 2010

Review Post 21 - The Joys of Youth

On to May, and that means it's time for The Small House at Allington, the fifth book in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles series. Each rereading of these books leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, and this month's instalment is no exception. Unusually for Trollope, the major event occurs early in the book when country belle Lily Dale captivates London man-about-town Adolphus Crosbie so completely that he decides to propose marriage. However, after an idyllic few weeks in Allington, Crosbie moves on to Courcy Castle, where he is besieged (in the most subtle, delicate and elegant way) by Lady Alexandrina. Despite knowing full well that he would be best served by remaining true to Lily, the snob in him is unable to resist the appeal of marrying into the aristocracy. Thus occurs a jilting which will change lives (at least three) forever...

Although Lily is widely acknowledged as the stand-out character, a burned moth unable to trust to her chances of recovery from her scorched attempt at romance, Crosbie, the undisputed villain of the piece, is just as fascinating. In Framley Parsonage, the figure of Nathaniel Sowerby exemplified the gentleman with all possible advantages in life who throws them all away, knowing all the while that the road he is treading leads only to ruin. So it is with Crosbie. He is fully aware that Lily would have made a far better wife than the ice-cold Lady Alexandrina, and he quickly realises that the degenerate assortment of alcoholics, scroungers and old maids who make up the Courcy family cannot hold a candle to the honest gentry surrounding Lily in Allington. So why does he do it?

Crosbie falls victim to his own delusions of grandeur, trading certain plain happiness for potential high status - something which never really comes to pass. Even while flirting at Courcy Castle, he admits to himself the inferiority of the people there, shuddering involuntarily at the ignorance and deceit he sees around him. Alas, his society time in London has become too dear to him, and he is unable to tear himself away from the bright lights; in truth, he is just as much of a moth as Lily is.

The observant reader (and I am sure that you are all observant - and highly intelligent as well) will have noticed that three lives were ruined by Crosbie's caddish behaviour. The third of these unfortunate souls is John Eames, a childhood friend of Lily's who (naturally) worships the very ground she walks on. He is a 'hobbledehoy', neither a child nor a man, and over the course of the novel, he develops socially and mentally until he believes (and is led by others to believe) that he may be the one to repair Crosbie's damage and mend Lily's heart. He is also a thinly-veiled portrait of Trollope himself and gives the author the opportunity to put aspects of his youth into his fiction, including his time as a clumsy clerk in the postal service. Quite whether Trollope would have been willing and able to avenge a lady's honour in the fashion Eames does is another matter entirely...

I'll leave you to find out how it all ends for yourself. As to the series itself, June will bring the review of what is, quite literally, The Last Chronicle of Barset, a glorious swansong for England's most famous fictional county and a chance to catch up with some old friends - some welcome, some not so. See you then!


While we're on the topic of thinly-veiled autobiography, the David Mitchell reminiscence tour stops by the Worcestershire town of Black Swan Green this week. Set in 1982, with a background of Betamax, sherbert bombs and the Falklands War, the novel follows young Jason Taylor, a young secondary school student with a stammer, through one of his most formative years. Despite the simplistic style of the storytelling and the detached nature of the thirteen chapters, Mitchell manages to tie it all into a seamless analysis of both adolescence and a simpler, quieter era.

Let me get the references out of the way now. The style reminds me very much of Mikael Niemi's Popular Music, a Finnish coming-of-age tale, while some of the content matter is reminiscent of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, particularly in its treatment of the effect less-than-perfect marriages can have on impressionable children. However, having compared Mitchell to one of his great influences, Murakami, in an earlier post, it would be remiss of me not to mention the parallels with Norwegian Wood, another great tale of past love and loss.

Which is not to say that Black Swan Green is derivative. As usual, Mitchell manages to put his own stamp on an idea that, it's fair to say, is not entirely original. It helps that the setting is not exactly alien to me, born five years later than Jason (and about fifty miles east of his Worcestershire home), yet I suspect that anyone reading his experiences would be drawn irresistibly back to their own childhood, whether that involved first kisses, chases through fields, bullying at school, or playing Space Invaders. We've all been there.

The backdrop of the Falklands War was particularly poignant for me though for a number of reasons. Firstly, the way the children reacted, watching the news coverage as if it were a sporting event, is very similar to the way we followed the first Gulf War at school (with chalk maps of the Middle East drawn on the blackboard at lunchtime). The inability to realise what was actually happening due to a lack of close involvement is now, at a distance of twenty years, slightly embarrassing to recall. Secondly, having been born in Coventry, there are certain things which are part of our shared knowledge, and the moment we learn that one of the locals is a sailor stationed on HMS Coventry, I choke up a little. Every time.

Look, to cut a long story short, Mitchell is brilliant, the book's brilliant, and I can't wait to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (currently reclining resplendently on the bookcase behind me).

And yes, I still hate him ;)