Themes in: Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

Themes in: Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

This post was written in advance.

This is the final post in this series (for now) and my final book of choice is Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips. Crossing The River is an odd book to describe. It is a piece of historical fiction, with a trans-historical mode. This means that, whilst focusing on issues of colonialism and slavery, it collectively tells the stories of multiple characters, both black and white.  However, despite being a collection of different stories, they are all thematically linked.

Slavery

Phillips wanted to write about slavery involvement in the UK, so naturally, this theme is clear throughout Crossing the River.  At the start of the book, The Ancestor sells his children into slavery. The pairing of money and slaves is continued significantly in the characters of Captain Hamilton and Edward Williams. Captain Hamilton is the owner of a slave-ship who, ironically, believes slave-trading is wrong. However, the financial gains he makes from the slave industry is the motivation behind his continued involvement. Edward Williams is the owner of a slave plantation, who also believes slavery is wrong, and yet participates in the industry regardless. The monetary value placed on a human life, and the commodification of slavery is absolutely vile; apparently it is not enough to benefit from having someone fulfil each and every of your desires, a profit must be made too. Crucially though, the author is unbiased in their depiction of these characters. Their involvement in the slave trade industry is neither praised nor condemned, leaving it to the reader to respond.

Melancholy

Each story seems to have an undercurrent of sadness. The Ancestor sells his children, which breaks his heart. Edward and Nash are separated*, Nash’s letters to Edward are never responded to and Nash is given no reason as to why this is the case.

*It’s hinted Edward’s wife forced communication between the pair to end after she discovered the homoerotic nature of their relationship.

Martha travels across America searching for her daughter, and Joyce sadly gives up her baby. This melancholia is often paired with feelings of loss, abandonment, displacement and/or severed relationships – perhaps to reflect the feelings of slaves across history.  They have been taken from their homes, removed from their families, and forced to suffer at the hands of a slave master.

Journeys

Many of the characters undertake journeys in Crossing the River. There are two types of journeys however: physical and metaphorical.

Physically, Martha travels across America to find her daughter, Edward travels to Africa to find Nash, Travis travels from America to Britain because of World War II, and Captain Hamilton goes on sea voyages as a slave-ship owner.

Metaphorically, some of the characters make the “journey” from life into death. Furthermore, journeys may also represent the trans-historical mode of the novel. Taking a “journey across time” is a popular phrase to describe tracking certain events of themes through history.  By presenting multiple characters’ physical journeys and metaphorical journeys of self-discovery and freedom, Phillips provides the reader with a historical journey, presenting how the issues of slavery and race relations are still as relevant today as they were during the time of the British slave trade involvement.

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Thank you for reading this blog post! This marks the end of this little series, but I may well pick it up again at a later date.

I hope you enjoyed it – please click ‘Like’ if you did, or leave some feedback in a comment below.

– Judith

Read and Review [+ Film Review]: The Shining

Read and Review [+ Film Review]: The Shining

Book Review

The Shining (1977) is a paranormal horror by Stephen King. When Jack Nicholson becomes caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, he moves his wife Wendy and five-year-old son Danny there as well. Although just a small boy, Danny has unusual psychic abilities – known as having a ‘shine’. As winter approaches and numerous blizzards cut the Nicholson family off from the outside world, the hotel appears to have a life of its own, causing dangerously scary visions and voices to play inside their heads. It looks, as The Shining’s book cover says, as if the hotel itself is ‘beginning to shine’.

King himself critiques The Shining – a skill I think all writers should posses – in his introduction, and comments that:

‘The result [of Jack’s character] wasn’t perfect, and there is a cocky quality to some of The Shining’s prose that has come to grate on me in later years, but I still like the book enormously’

I liked The Shining enormously too; Jack became a scarier and scarier antagonistic force, motivated not just by supernatural beings but by the haunting memories of his own abusive upbringing. The animal-shaped hedges seem to come to life, moving behind their backs, hunting the family so they can’t escape.*

*This reminds me of my favourite Dr Who villains, The Weeping Angels.

Whilst the narrative perspective did often change, (in true King style) because the Overlook Hotel is so isolated, the narrative mostly alternated between the only three tangible characters: Jack, Danny and Wendy. I thought these provided a much deeper insight to the thought processes of each character which is especially beneficial in a psychological novel about the powers of the mind as well as problems of the mind.

Although Hallorann’s involvement, particularly at the beginning of the novel, was useful at providing the reader with explanatory information about ‘shining’ abilities, he felt very much like an outsider and at times he felt like just a plot device.

 My one main criticism is a minor one.

In his last few pages, King uses the adverb ‘suddenly’ three times in the space of three sentences. If I recall correctly, he asserted in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) that ‘suddenly’ is quite a lazy way of describing a given event. Maybe he formed that opinion upon reflection of The Shining, or maybe he included them purposefully for effect. Either way, I had trouble taking that last passage completely seriously, because of the way multiple ‘suddenlys’ were included. It’s quite a petty criticism, but I’m an English student and writer, so I can’t help but notice language or grammar that bothers me.

Overall, I quite liked The Shining, and would definitely recommend.

Film Review

I recently watched the 1980s film adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick – a film, interestingly, King can’t stand! After watching it, I had lots of initial thoughts I just had to write down:

Negatives

1) As an adaptation of the novel, it is seriously lacking. Whilst an adaptation is not limited to religiously following every page of the source material, I would expect the core plot to be as similar as possible. However, Kubrick departs from this; there were multiple blatant changes or omissions from the book, which I felt detracted from the narrative of the film. For example, King’s Jack descends into insanity by mixing the the grisly and ghostly past of the Overlook Hotel with his struggles with alcoholism and abuse, whereas Kubrick’s Jack is introduced to the audience in a way that suggests he is already unhinged.

2) Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) is such a pathetic character. She does nothing but scream or cry, and it was just tiring to watch. King refer to her as ‘one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film […] that’s not the woman that I wrote about’. (IndieWire).

3) The ending left me unsatisfied, mainly because it was so different to King’s ending, and there was no clear resolution. However, this might also have its benefits: it raises lots of questions for the audience, mainly questions about what (and who) is real and what (and who) is purely hallucination. As my friend Florence commented, ‘The fact it raises so many questions is why I love it so much.’*

*Florence’s favourite film happens to be The Shining.

Positives

1) The musical score was brilliant; the tension was consistent throughout, by the raising or lowering of volume and the use of string instruments. The level of tension, even when there were no sudden movements or “jump scares”, was refreshing in comparison to modern horror, where the format seems to be nothing more than building up tension until the next “jump scare”.

2) Although King wasn’t overwhelmed by Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance, I thought he was superb. He looked and sounded like a convincing, raging psychopathic and he was by far the best casting choice.  I may be somewhat biased in this opinion as, before reading The Shining, I had seen a few clips – like the infamous “Here’s Johnny” scene – and so even when reading the book, it was Nicholson I pictured.

3) Some of the cinematography was stunning. One example of this are the tracking shots used to follow Danny’s tricycle around the hotel. The transitions are smoothly executed, and incredible attention to detail is given to the sounds of his tricycle. We hear him cycle over wood flooring noisily, he passes over a rug (suddenly making it eerily quiet), then he cycles back over the flooring. A second example is when (minor spoiler here) Jack is trapped in the pantry. The audience are left looking up at Jack, as he fights against the door; we see his nostrils flare, his eyes widen, and his muscles work to free himself – all while he looms over the camera in a domineering stance. Clever film techniques such as these are a Media Studies student’s dream (a dream I left behind at A Level sadly) and The Shining is certainly a well-crafted film.

My Photo [The Shining]
A still taken from the film.

Approaching the film with an analytical and psychological thriller perspective, I think The Shining is fascinating and for that reason I enjoyed it. However, as an adaptation dubbed the ‘scariest horror film ever’ (The Independent) and based on a fantastic novel, for me, The Shining falls short.

Thank you for reading!

Please click ‘Like’ if you enjoyed this post or click ‘Follow’ for more reviews and other book or film themed blog posts.

– Judith

Themes in: D.H. Lawrence’s Short Stories

Themes in: D.H. Lawrence’s Short Stories

Image via blogs.nottingham.ac.uk.

This post was written in advance, and is also the penultimate blog post on themes (for the time being).

I’m going to talk about the themes of war, class and gender and how these overlap across  England, My England, The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter, and Monkey Nuts – three short stories by the Nottinghamshire writer D.H. Lawrence.

Class

In Monkey Nuts, Joe, a young soldier, and Albert, Joe’s corporal have come back from the war and work together unloading hay. There are close, and unified in their working-class status; despite Albert being Joe’s corporal, Joe ‘never thought of [him]… as a master’. This closeness, whilst interpreted as some as brotherly affection, has led to others interpreting the relationship between Albert and Joe as homoerotic.* Nonetheless, this intense relationship which has flourished, regardless of social status, suggests how war was helped to somewhat break down the class system in Britain.

*There are further nods to this as the two live together and even share a bed.

In contrast, The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter presents the relationship between people of differing classes completely differently. Firstly, the classes are geographically separate – Jack, a doctor, lives atop a hill in the village, whereas the working-class homes are below him in the valley, providing a clear metaphor that the working-class are also “below” him in all ways. Secondly, Jack finds visiting the working-class homes to treat the sick ‘stimulation’ for his mind. Free indirect discourse provides access to Jack’s thoughts; he thinks working-class are ‘emotional’, providing an interesting break from his own rational mind. The view that the middle-class are logical and intelligent, whereas the working-class are merely bumbling, emotional and a little odd is clearly discriminatory.**

**The fact that a working-class woman later throws herself in a pond probably doesn’t help matters.

War

England, My England is a story mostly focused on the theme of war. Evelyn is a middle-class man who joins the army, seemingly for something to curb his idleness and boredom – another suggestion that working-class lifestyle and labour is merely a “holiday” for someone belonging to a higher class. However, despite his wife’s enthusiasm and the general atmosphere of patriotism and excitement, Evelyn doesn’t share others’ favouritism of England, and is continuously upfront about what he’s going to do. A key sentence is ‘The distinction between German and English was not for him the distinction between good and bad’. This sentence is significant when context is considered. Lawrence was English, but his wife was German. As a result, Lawrence experienced lots of anti-German animosity because of his wife and was heavily critical of British propaganda. Lawrence saw war for what it was, and is: killing, and however, unsavoury that sounds, that’s the truth.

War is also a theme in Monkey Nuts. As previously mentioned, Joe and Albert are ex-soldiers, and work together unloading hay. Miss Stokes, a land-girl, passes them each day. This mix of both men and women in a working environment highlights how the war not only helped to partially erode class boundaries, but gender boundaries too.***

***If this was a history-themed blog, I could talk at length about women’s work in war and the women’s movement thanks to my History A Level, but it isn’t, so I won’t.

Gender

Following on from this, Miss Stokes is attracted to Joe and manages to hold power over him in such a way that she begins trying to start a relationship with him. However, she ignores his lack of interest and desire to be with her, and he is subsequently pressured into seeing her. This is a subversion of gender stereotypes, as it would be more common for a man to initiate the process of courtship a woman.

Similarly, in The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter, Mabel (the working-class woman mentioned earlier) is rescued from the pond by Jack. He resuscitates her, takes her to his home and lies her by the fire and fetches dry clothes for her. Upon waking, Mabel interprets his life-saving actions as a declaration of his love for her. She begins to urgently repeat, chant and insists to him that ‘You love me’. Again, through free indirect discourse, we learn that Jack is categorically not in love with her, he merely saved her life as his duty as doctor. He is shocked at Mabel’s increasingly affectionate actions, such as kissing and embracing him. This increasingly predatory behaviour causes Jack to admit that he does indeed love her, so as not to upset the emotionally fragile Mabel.

In these two different stories, Lawrence has created female characters who initiate romantic behaviour, regardless of whether the men want it or not. I find this incredibly interesting, although I am not certain as to the reason behind this choice. It strikes me as a subversion – perhaps to emphasis to a male readership how truly horrible sexual assault and/or unwanted advances are, perhaps for another reason entirely.

***

Thank you for reading this blog post! Those are my summarised thoughts on the three stories.

I hope you enjoyed it – please click ‘Like’ if you did, or leave some feedback in a comment below.

– Judith

Themes in: Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Themes in: Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sass Warning: Low/Mild

The Sherlock Holmes stories are such a famous franchise now, originally written by Arthur Conan Doyle as short stories and novels.  The stories belong to detective genre, and most of the plots rest on on restoring order to society after the disorder a certain crime has caused.

The only theme I want to talk about in the Sherlock Holmes stories is class, in relation to The Man With The Twisted Lip and The Speckled Band. There are striking differences between how the working-class and middle-class are portrayed in the two texts.

For example, Grimesby Roylott in The Speckled Band is a vastly wealthy and powerful figure. He is also the antagonist and a criminal, guilty of murder and attempted murder.  However, he is compared to a fearsome ‘bird of prey’ which, whilst a mildly threatening image, also connotes majesty, cleverness and skill. It is much more appealing to be compared to an eagle than a pigeon, for instance.   Roylott is also described with elaborate imagery such as the metaphor ‘A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles’. The lengths Watson goes to describe Roylott in these ways suggests an awe, or bias towards a villain, because of his middle-class status.

In contrast, Hugh Boone – a beggar and ruffian in The Man With The Twisted Lip – is described with negative language such as ‘piteous spectacle’ and ‘pale face disfigured by a horrible scar’. This description implies that those of the lower class not only look different to the middle-class, but they look worse*, as we are spared of Watson’s poetic language – language which, it would seem, is reserved for those belonging to the middle-class, like Roylott. This discriminatory language, and the perceived correlation between appearance and class has not left society; how many jokes have been made about the appearance of guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show, a programme largely designed to “represent” those who are not middle or upper class?

* The language used to describe Boone’s appearance is even more troubling once we learn that Boone is merely a disguise performed by the middle-class man, Neville St. Clair, who created his appearance to purposefully “look lower class”.

Furthermore, a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories turn the reader’s attention to Holmes’ rival: Professor James Moriarty (although he isn’t present in either of the two previously mentioned stories). Despite Moriarty’s involvements in countless crimes and schemes, I don’t think the reader is ever expected to see him in the same way as other criminals. He is cunning, ruthless, and his crimes provide Holmes with intellectual “stimulation”. The fact that Moriarty is a well-educated professor with a substantial income, who also happens to belong to the same class as Holmes and Watson is, I’m sure, merely coincidental with the narrative’s positive bias towards him.

In short, the Sherlock Holmes stories portray middle class criminals as attractive and exciting, whereas any criminal perceived to be from a lower class is portrayed as the scum they rightly are.


Thank you for reading this blog post.

Please click ‘Like’ and leave any responses you have in the comments below.

– Judith

[BONUS] Read and Review: COMMUNE by JOSHUA GAYOU @JoshuaGayou #BookReview #Dystopian

[BONUS] Read and Review: COMMUNE by JOSHUA GAYOU @JoshuaGayou #BookReview #Dystopian
  • Title: Commune
  • Author: Joshua Gayou
  • Published: 2017

Commune: Book One is the story of one small group of survivors who must adapt to a primitive, hostile world or die. As they learn the rules of this new era, they must decide how far they’re willing to go to continue living, continually asking themselves the same question daily: is survival worth the loss of humanity?

My Photo [Commune]

When I started reading Commune, I noticed a couple of minor technical issues. There were some grammatical errors, and the narrative occasionally swapped tenses by accident. Also, some words were written with excessive letters or punctuation, like thiiiiiiis????!!!! As a reader, I urge writers not to do this. It may look as if it expresses deeper meaning, I assure you it does not; I read it as this? or this! regardless of how many extra letters or punctuation marks have been added.*

*I covered these writing tips in a different book review last year, which you can read here:

However, looking past these technical issues, I really enjoyed the story behind Commune. It had all the great conventions of a dystopian, apocalyptic narrative – scavenging, survival, and strange encounters.

I was also thrilled at the relationship dynamic between Amanda and Jake. Their narratives begin at different places in the novel, and have separate paths until eventually uniting. It was hard to follow the (sometimes length) chapters that followed their individual stories, but once they joined forces, I loved their pairing together. It was refreshing to have a stronger female character who builds up a close relationship to a male without it being reduced to a love story.

When I first read the synopsis of Commune, I thought it sounded similar to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – an incredibly bleak survival story of a father and his son. Yet I didn’t find Commune particularly bleak. Albeit, there were moments of sadness and occasional danger, but the characters were never really lacking serious supplies and I thought their journey was relatively straightforward.

For a truly bleak dystopian, I would have preferred there to be a serious threat looming over the characters from the start – there were some mentions of an ominous Plague, but I don’t think this was explored enough to be seen as dangerous.

Although Gayou wanted Commune to focus on a human survival story, rather than a supernatural one, I couldn’t help but long for a subhuman threat, like the cannibalistic gangs from The Road or the zombie hoards from The Walking Dead.

Overall, Gayou lays a good foundation for future books about this world and the characters he’s created. Whilst I have my criticisms (as every book reviewer should), this was still a good read, and an enjoyable new dystopian novel.

Star Rating: 4/5 Stars

Commune: Book One is available to buy as an e-book or a paperback from Amazon.com or Amazon UK.

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Thank you for reading my review!

Many thanks to Joshua Gayou, who sent me a copy of Commune to read for free. His website is: joshuagayou.wordpress.com.

If you enjoyed this review, please click ‘Like’ and don’t forget to ‘Follow’ for more book reviews.

– Judith

 

Read and Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge

Read and Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Title: The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Author: Thomas Hardy
  • Published: 1886

The Mayor of Casterbridge is dubbed a ‘tragedy’ novel. It is about Michael Henchard, a hay-trusser who sells his wife Susan and their daughter Elizabeth-Jane to a sailor on a drunken whim. Years later, Susan arrives in Casterbridge and, to her surprise, finds Henchard is the Mayor and is a reformed man. The pair reunite, but both Henchard and Susan are keeping secrets from one another, and the past refuses to stay buried.

In true Hardy style, multiple taboos are introduced quickly in The Mayor of Casterbridge, such as the maltreatment of women, drunkenness, fights, fake identities, and death.

The number of problems each character faced, and how these problems impacted upon the other characters made the book feel very much like an 19th century predecessor to The Jeremy Kyle Show!

I thought The Mayor of Casterbridge was okay, despite having a dislike for most of the characters; each character was selfish and deceptive in varying amounts, so it was hard to feel sympathetic for any of them.

The Mayor of Casterbridge has particularly witty moments, and I liked the Harry Potter-like language in this passage:

‘she [Elizabeth-Jane] no longer spoke of “dumbledores” but of “humble bees” […] that when she had not slept she did not quaintly tell the servants next morning that she had been “hag-rid,” but that she had “suffered from indigestion.”’

(Chapter 20)

I think it’s still unclear as to whether this passage inspired J.K. Rowling, when it came to writing her best-selling children’s fantasy series. In an interview with Stephanie Loer for The Boston Globe, Rowling said:

“Some of the names are invented… Dumbledore […] is an Old English word meaning bumblebee. Hagrid, who by the way is one of my favourite characters, also comes from an Old English word – hagridden – meaning having a nightmarish night.”

Regardless, I liked The Mayor of Casterbridge (not as much as Jude The Obscure however) – not because of its maybe links to the Harry Potter books, but because of Hardy’s ability to simply tell a good story.

Thanks for reading! Please click ‘Like’ if you enjoyed.

– Judith

Read and Review: Perfect People

Read and Review: Perfect People
  • Title: Perfect People
  • Author: Peter James
  • Published: 2011

Perfect People is a thriller novel from the acclaimed crime and thriller writer, Peter James.

After losing their four-year-old son to a rare genetic disorder, John and Naomi Klaesson are grieving, yet want another child – one who will be free from genetic diseases and as healthy as possible. Geneticist Leo Dettore offers them a lifeline: the chance to choose the perfect genetic makeup of their new baby – their sex, their hair colour, abilities, and so much more. However, the couple notice something is wrong too late, and they can’t turn back, because Naomi is already pregnant…

I read Perfect People in abut 2-3 days, because it really had me hooked. In an era where genetically modifying embryos is already a possibility, the notion of “designer babies” does not seem that much more of a stretch, and James capitalises on this.

‘There are certain things in life that happen that shouldn’t happen – which don’t need to happen – and which science can now prevent from happening.’ 

(Perfect People, p.15)

It’s difficult to speak openly about my response to Perfect People without giving away spoilers, but I’ll try my best.

It’s a good thriller, and whilst some of the plot twists I saw quite clearly, others caught me completely off-guard.

I liked James’ style of writing, although the description was too poetic in places for me: elaborate imagery doesn’t’ gel with the book’s attempted realism and authenticity. Also, at one point, he used the phrase ‘quite unique’ – a grammatically incorrect phrase that bothers me immensely.

The scientist Dettore was suitably creepy, along with the psychopathic, genetically modified children he breeds.

However, I felt that the inclusion of religious extremism as an antagonistic force didn’t work well. Whilst sects, cults and religious extremism can be incredibly scary (and is thus often used in paranormal horror), it just didn’t feel authentic in Perfect People. I’ve no doubt that there are real people in the world prepared to use extreme measures to campaign against issues like genetic testing, but James’ fictional cult, The Disciples of the Third Millennium, felt like it was purely inspired by imagination rather than inspired by research. This mean that for me, the mentions of gods, prophecies and Biblical passages just fell flat.

I would have preferred to see Dettore’s psychopathic children rise as an antagonistic force – perhaps against parents, adults or other figures of authority, and it’s a shame this wasn’t explored.

Despite my criticisms, I still thoroughly enjoyed Perfect People, and would strongly recommend it.

Another blogger I came across, wrote that Perfect People is:

‘A true morality tale [that makes] readers ponder their lot, to be grateful for what they have and to fear taking risks with scientific advances that might change things for the better or for the worst.’

(Keith Walters, BooksandWriters)

Thank you for reading!

– Judith