Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Portrait Of A Marriage by Nigel Nicolson / Bell Of The Desert by Alan Gold / Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold NicolsonPortrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to Orlando by Virginia Woolf last year on audio and, having loved that book, wanted to find out more about its real-life protagonists especially the muse for Orlando him/herself, Vita Sackville-West. Having asked for biography suggestions on Goodreads, several people directed me to Portrait Of A Marriage by Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson. I downloaded it ages ago and have finally gotten around to reading it!

Firstly, I think the authorship should be equally credited to Vita as well as Nigel because two of the book's five sections are an early autobiography penned by Vita! In these pages, I discovered a fascinating complex woman. Vita is intelligent, selfish, passionate, generous, witty and incredibly melodramatic. Born into an aristocratic family, she has no real understanding of her great privilege in comparison with the majority of British people then, and now. She zooms off around Europe, seemingly at a moment's notice, visiting fabulous places as if it is nothing - I was certainly quite jealous of such a lifestyle! However, once I got past this ignorance of the 'real world', I could begin to understand and even empathise with the all-consuming love of her young life. Vita has a passionate affair, beginning before her marriage and continuing afterwards, with another woman, Violet. The two have been friends since childhood but in adulthood, friendship turns to love. Reading both Vita and Violet's letters to each other unveiled amazing emotion between them and it was easy to understand why they were so determined to elope and escape society's refusal to openly accept such a relationship. Interestingly, neither of Vita's parents were faithful to their marriage either - an upper crust behaviour pattern that is fine in private but not in the newspapers.

Later, as Nigel begins to speak, we learn how Vita's marriage to Harold survived the affair leading to a wonderfully romantic love between the pair that lasted their whole lives. I didn't particularly like him either - he was happy to live off British taxes by taking a diplomatic job that placed him all around the world, yet still despised the middle-class taxpayers whose effectively paid his wages. However the quoted letters between the two made for fascinating reading and a great voyeuristic glimpse into a whole other way of living. Both Vita and Harold had affairs with other women and men respectively so, after the early years and the birth of their sons, the marriage was one of minds, not bodies. I was gripped by this intense relationship and, as writers both, their beautifully eloquent expressions of love and pain.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

Bell of the Desert: A NovelBell of the Desert: A Novel by Alan Gold
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's taken quite a while, by my standards, to read Bell Of The Desert and unfortunately I did feel as though I was having to plough through the latter chapters. As I received the novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my review, I did feel obligated to finish it and there are some good points, but the writing style wasn't really to my taste. I am submitting this review to Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

Bell Of The Desert is a fictionalised biography of Gertrude Bell, an amazing explorer, archaeologist and politician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was widely respected throughout the Middle East at the time, although her guarding of her privacy means that she is now far less famous than contemporaries such as T E Lawrence (of Arabia). I do hope the forthcoming Nicole Kidman film doesn't make her famous again for shallow reasons!

Alan Gold has obviously deeply researched parts of his novel and the complicated political webs of The Great War and its aftermath are nicely explained, whether Gertrude is their focus or not. I felt the novel came alive here as its three main protagonists, Gertrude, Lawrence and Arabian King Faisal, danced around each other trying to resolve the bloody mess of broken promises. However, a lot of the novel has already happened by this point and I was disappointed by the superficial treatment of Gertrude's early years in the deserts that so captured her heart. We only visit one archaeological dig - where she meets Lawrence - and I never really felt as though I was being shown this world as she saw it.

Other irritations: several chapters end in cliffhangers which are then ignored, the following chapter beginning much further on in time. For example, at one point Gertrude is captured and imprisoned by a particularly nasty Arab. How will she escape? I still don't know, even having finished the whole book, because the next chapter begins weeks later. The episode is alluded to, but never fully explained. Gold also has a habit of beginning new episodes with several lines only identifying the lead character as 'he' or 'she'. 'She' is generally Gertrude, but there are several male characters from whom to choose and I often got confused who I was reading about.

Having had high hopes for this novel which, with its historical and feminist themes, should have been exactly my sort of thing, I was ultimately disappointed. I did learn about Great War politics, but don't feel as though I really got to know Gertrude Bell.

Buy the hardback from Waterstones.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and NightfallNocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kazuo Ishiguro seems to be a 'Marmite' author whom readers either love or hate! Nocturnes is now the third of his books I have read and, looking back on Goodreads, I was interested to see that I have rated them all the same at four stars - very good but not quite wow.

In Nocturnes, we are introduced to a horseshoe of five stories, mostly slightly linked and all incorporating a theme of music and musicians somewhere within their tales. I chose to buy this book on Audible audio so was not only treated to suitable musical snippets leading into and out of each story, but also had five different narrators. I think this helped because I was aware at several points that the lead characters were fairly similar in their way of speaking. Having a new physical voice separated the tales in a way that reading might not have done.

My favourite of the stories was Malvern Hills, read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. The natural landscape worked well and I felt this character was the most developed. It was also perhaps the tale with the least greed and vanity in it - perhaps. As well as the poignancy of losing love, brief encounters, and meetings of minds, Ishiguro also tackles interesting themes such as the physical appearance of musicians, the rise and fall of fashions, what makes a life 'successful'. A couple of stories do border on becoming overly saccharine, but there are genuinely funny moments of farce too.
I did feel that all five stories are middles. Nicely observed and beautifully placed, but with ambiguous endings that weren't always satisfying. However, a thoughtful and different collection that made for a cosy retreat over a couple of rainy days.

Buy the paperback from Waterstones.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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