Tea with White Russians, Nazi Germans, Nora, Johnsey, and the Abolitionists.

kate 002I really enjoyed Christmas this year. It was packed with Assam, Countess Grey, Irish Breakfast and Chai tea leaves swirling in the lovely new glass tea diffuser (which was broken on the 28th and replaced by a much nicer, cheaper one from Dunnes the next day). We danced with White Russians (might have had something to do with the smashed diffuser), Whiskey Sours, Piscos and Duck. All delightful. And the mornings were spent in bed with an array of characters: Nora, Thompsen and Hannah Doll, Handful and Sarah, Johnsey, and a Stinging Fly. Let me tell you about them.

I finished Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest just before Christmas. It is a ruthless depiction (as it would have to be) of concentration camp life in Nazi Germany and was unpleasant to read but fascinating. Rather horrifyingly, I was able to draw parallels with our society today too. I had determined never to read Martin Amis again after reading his autobiography in which I found his arrogance and ego unbearable. Portraying Nazis, these attributes come to the fore again in this book. He looks at the moral decline of the German officers as they struggle with their torture and killing of thousands of Jews coming in by the wagon load. As the numbers increase, so do the self justifications (sound familiar?) and the madness. Camp life is harsh for the Germans who become reliant on alcohol and pills. Cruelty begets cruelty until everyone is a bare body of madness. The book is full of cruel sex, cruel torture. Every person becomes an object of slavery. Power corrupts…

Amis’ vocabulary is extensive. Thank God I was reading it on my tablet so that I could refer to the dictionary easily. He bastardises the German language. It is an unpleasant book to read and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. It is an extraordinary story, bleak and horrifying.  Its harshness has to be but it also is written with an unedifying arrogance. But, I don’t know how else it could be written. Amis’ list of acknowledgements is extensive. He has done his homework and the last section in the book discusses the notion of ‘why’ this happened and is interesting. The book was a depressing read. The writing was tinged with smugness. But it did stir me up and made me discuss it!

After that, I wanted a nicer story, with a lilting graciousness. I’ll read Nora Webster, I thought though after listening to an interview with Colm Tóibin, which irritated me, I had decided not to (I am rather weak willed, n’est pas?)

For the first part of the book, I felt like an outsider. The print lay between me and the story. I got more immersed as I read on, but I felt slightly removed from the pages throughout. Early on, I found myself questioning Tóibin’s attitude to Nora Webster. I had heard him say she was based on his mother and I wondered if that was a mistake. I felt she was not depicted fairly. I wondered if his own anger and grief as a child had shaped her character. Watching Nora evolve was a little like watching a child begin to appreciate that a mother is a fully fledged, rounded, thinking human being and not simply there to serve and protect.

Tóibin is a great writer and I enjoyed the book. It has all the usual rural and town characters, and his references to the Troubles in the North and Charlie Haughey were interesting. But I didn’t understand Nora Webster. Maybe this was because she was a rural Irish woman of her time and I am a city English woman of mine but I’m not sure that is the case.  I felt Nora was one dimensional and more of a sounding board for Tóibin. I understand rural life can be very restrictive…but I felt as if he was using her as a foil for himself. It was as if she had to learn all her natural instincts.

Talking of rural characters, I picked up Donal Ryan’s The Thing About December in the Eason New Year sale. I wish I hadn’t. It was a grim depiction of rural life in Ireland. In the Spinning Heart (which I liked), Ryan showed his ability to portray the minutiae of human weakness. He is as ruthless here too. He captures the narrow mindedness of rural life, the meanness of people, the ignorance and cruelty. He shows what happens when an individual does nothing and how nothing grows into something full of hatred and violence. If anything, it reflects on how important it is that we all do something,  however little, to direct and shape our own lives.

I also read The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd set in pre-Civil War Charleston. It is about slavery and is based on the story of two sisters who became active abolitionists and Quakers. The first part which looks at the relationship of the older sister, Sarah, with her slave girl, Handful, I found a little unrealistic. But I was gripped by the second half as Sarah and her sister set off on the trail of fighting for abolition. Fascinating. Sue Monk Kidd also writes beautifully. A recommended book!

So, the New Year began. Hanging with Elephants is next. I didn’t have time for the Stinging Fly yet.


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