Framing A Moment…

15 March 2021 (22:30)

One of the consistently compelling features of Jane Davis’ work is the elegance imbued within her writing style, which makes each title such a sumptuous treat.This is my fifth sojourn into the author’s impressive list of books and I am struck by the breadth of historic and contemporary backdrops, between which Ms Davis seems to move with such consummate ease. However, this particular book, set in large part during the decadent Edwardian era, seems to give full rein to the author’s lavish prose and introduces another wonderfully characterized female protagonist.

Lottie Pye was born in 1910 and in mysterious circumstances was spared the workhouse, instead to be raised in Brighton, in the care of humble bakers, Kate and Sidney. By contrast, as a child, Sir James Hastings, her son, enjoyed the trappings of wealth, but grew up motherless, that’s to say he only met his mother once, at a photographic exhibition in Brighton when he was aged ten, where she was accompanied by an amputee soldier, apparently taken under her wing. However, since Lottie went on to live to the grand age of 108, Sir James was an old man himself by the time his mother’s solicitor wrote to inform him of her death. There followed the delivery of Lottie’s life’s work, forty two boxes of photographs and a letter partially explaining/excusing her absence from his life.

It’s an extraordinary scenario and through a cleverly crafted plot, the reader is immersed into the life of a woman apparently born to a great purpose and the slow reveal of her journey is told through the alternating stories of mother and son. The interplay between the fly-on-the-wall immediacy of ‘Lottie’s story’ and the retrospective reflections of Sir James’,  combine seamlessly into an absorbing family saga. Both stories are told in the first person and Sir James is assisted by a photography student (Jenny), to interpret the snapshots of his mother’s professional progression and deduce their significance. Over time Jenny is also able to offer insight into Lottie’s circumstances and some impartial balance, which may even advocate Lottie’s posthumous rehabilitation, or at least a more compassionate reading of the judgements made. 

The book is teeming with complex relationships and examines the relevance of blood ties and societal expectations of mothers particularly, but also the undeniable power of love and the fickle nature of human attachment. The fault lines of class and gender are also prominent, as is the concept of ‘doing one’s duty’, which may constrain an individual’s behaviour and aspirations with glutinous social norms. Still, what sets Lottie Pye apart is having the courage to resist the path of compliance, but being prepared to pay the personal price of those contentious choices, in an effort to remain true to herself. Certainly by the end of the book, I had become quite an admirer of Lottie Pye and her ardent refusal to be cowed by the inequities of her time. A life well worth exploring and another book destined for my ‘favourites shelf’, in the sure knowledge that there is more to be wrung from this excellent novel.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

DNF – a first!

12:03 PM 30 JUNE 2018

In an overdue exercise in clearing up some flotsam on my shelf, I have taken the unprecedented  step of declaring this book a ‘DNF’ – ‘did not finish’ and moreover have no intention of finishing…ever! I am not easily discouraged as a rule, but I made it to page 242 (about 25% in) and it struck me as such a dispiriting book that I’ve decided to cut my losses. Life is after all too short.

The narrator of the story, Dr Max Aue is a former SS Intelligence Officer and claims he “never asked to become a murderer.” Yet, his proclivity for the function of mass killer leaves the reader with no understanding or empathy for the miserable husk of a man that he becomes, still less for the mindless atrocities in which he was complicit. Indeed, I leave the book rather disappointed that this wretched character goes on to survive the war.

The sleeve notes point out that the book has won literary accolades and I readily acknowledge that Jonathan Littell writes well, but the content is not for me. The notes also add that this is a book, ‘to which no one can be indifferent’ and that too may be true. Unfortunately I disliked it so intensely that it has the distinction of being my first unread shelf occupant. It has also been compared to ‘War and Peace’, though I am confident that Tolstoy’s masterpiece will not get the same response (it’s added to my tbr list, just to be sure). Of course it is eminently possible that I am mistaken, but I’m content with this being ‘one that got away’.

Reading progress update: I’ve read 152 out of 992 pages.

12:24 PM 20 OCTOBER 2017

I’m not usually minded to update on reading ‘progress’, but for this “monument of contemporary literature” I’ve made an exception. Firstly, it’s a fairly impressive tome, weighing in at nearly a thousand pages, which implies a fairly large investment in time. But,  the subject matter is also destined to be harrowing and is likely to be interspersed with some lighter reads, in an effort to stave off emotional exhaustion.

Perhaps, if I explain the book is a fictional memoir of Dr Max Aue, a former SS intelligence officer and the first hundred or so pages has been dominated by the Nazi invasion eastward into Poland in World War II and the central character’s involvement in the attendant atrocities, you will appreciate the nature of the task. Certainly it is not an easy read! Trying to illuminate the seductive nature of evil on such a terrifying scale is ambitious and man’s capacity for inhumanity is frightening! Whether this book enhances the understanding of the horror of war and the tragic consequences is another matter.

My early impression of the novel is that it’s well written, but that Jonathan Littell must have known his approach would be controversial. Notwithstanding the cover sleeve suggests it has been compared to “classics of world literature, including War and Peace”, time will tell whether it was worth the effort. The sleeve also suggests that “this is a book that every thinking person should read and to which no one can be indifferent”. Whatever my ultimate conclusions, I’m sure that will be true. I’m already far from indifferent, but the thinking is perhaps necessarily uncomfortable.

Revolutionary storytelling

7:57 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

I read this after attending a talk on World Book Night by the author. Still, my curiosity was well rewarded. A real ‘page-turner’, I slipped through the book in just three or four sittings and the plot moved through the gears effortlessly. In spite of the powerless situation in which the ten year-old central character (Charles) finds himself, compounded by his traumatic loss of speech, still his inner strength comes through in his inner dialogue. Charles is a pawn in an intriguing politically charged struggle on both sides of the English Channel and the backdrop of the French revolution is masterfully woven into the storyline. Based on this experience, I will definitely seek out some other examples of Andrew Taylor’s work.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521157511

Rating: 3 out of 5.