Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Awakening by Kate Chopin / The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver / The Gin Thief: Becoming Scarlet by S C Barrus

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Awakening cropped up as the ForgottenBooks book of the day a few months ago now and, as its synopsis looked interesting, I downloaded it. Set in an upper class American society in the last years on the 19th century, The Awakening attempts to understand, although not to condone, the actions of a woman who finds herself trapped in a domestic life for which she is patently unsuited but, due to the morals of the day, which she has no choice but to endure.
Edna has two children whom she loves and a frequently absent husband who loves 'owning' her. However, Edna is not overtly maternal so when she knows her children to be cared for by nursemaid of their grandmother, she often does not give them a thought from one hour to the next. I got the impression that if she had been allowed the same choice I enjoy over a century later, she would have given motherhood a miss. Unfortunately, she has blindly followed societal expectations. When a summer meeting with a younger man awakens Edna's sense of self, she first tries to bury her emotions as she 'should', but unable to continue the charade, she sets out for a future which is impossible to achieve. Her potential new man will not take the risk to be with her and a bereft Edna cannot return to her previous life.
The illustration of desperation and Edna's inner turmoil is always believable when set against the strictness of the time and I was amazed by the vitriol and spite churned up against the character in other reviews. In her mind, Edna does the right thing. Leaving her husband would permanently stigmatise her children and she would experience serious mental breakdown by staying, so instead fakes accidental drowning while the boys are safely out of the way at their grandmother's.
I liked that Chopin obviously understands her characters completely and manages to set out their lives without actually proffering any as best. Mademoiselle Reisz is fascinating and an interesting choice of confidant for Edna. Leonce is ghastly! Self-important and only out for possessions and social climbing.
The writing style is a little dated now, perhaps too coy for modern tastes, but this softness did not detract from my growing sense of unease as Edna's behaviour becomes both stronger and more erratic.

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Books by Kate Chopin / Contemporary fiction / Books from America

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

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I read another Barbara Kingsolver book, The Lacuna, a while ago, and was in two minds about it as I enjoyed the depictions of lives and relationships but was then left cold as the second half descended into dry politics. I was concerned that the brick that is The Poisonwood Bible might go the same way, so was delighted to find that it doesn't. The then current situation in The Congo/Zaire is woven around the immediate story of the Price family but its intricacies are not thoroughly explored so if you're hoping for a more factual novel of the country's upheaval, this might not be the one for you.
Instead Kingsolver has created a powerful portrait and caution against the insanity of blind faith and ill-prepared attempts to force one people to the will of another. Her creation of the out-of-their-depth Price family is inspired and I was interested to learn how a Southern 1950s white American family viewed both themselves and their Congolese hosts. Tyrant-father Nathan, believing himself master yet more useless and alienated than anyone due to his refusal to see the Congolese as more than savage children, is the only one whose words we do not directly hear, but his character is rounded out by the five women and girls, his family, existing despite his best efforts(!).
I did find it tricky early on in the novel to remember who was speaking but as each develops her own distinctive voice, the sisters and mother each show their Africa from very different viewpoints and it was interesting to see how their varying skills both allowed some entry to Congolese society but also kept them apart. The pages rushed past as I found this novel impossible to put down and have been thinking over it a lot in the couple of days since I finished. There are so many issues raised - family and friendship, race and colonialism, religion and choice, life and survival - that I think I could read The Poisonwood Bible several times, seeing new detail in it with each read. Perhaps this is one that won't get Bookcrossed too quickly!

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Books by Barbara Kingsolver / Historical fiction / Books from America

The Gin Thief: Episode 1: Becoming Scarlet by S C Barrus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've not tried reading a serialised book as it is published before so am interested to learn whether I will be able to remember all the storylines over a period of time. Generally I read intensively with scarcely a pause until my current novel is finished, immersing myself in it completely. My break with tradition was caused by spotting the Kickstarter campaign for S C Barrus' new creation, The Gin Thief series. Taking a minor set of characters, The Scarlets, from his steampunk novel Discovering Aberration which I previously enjoyed reading, he is now telling their story and particularly that of their now newest recruit, Miss Yevylin Over.
S C's writing style is dense with intricate descriptions of place, costume and character. I appreciate that he takes time to set up scenes without simply rushing to the action and, although this does mean his stories advance at a slower pace than those of other authors, I think the approach suits the imaginative steampunk genre and it also mirrors that of Victorian authors so adds to the 'genuine' atmosphere.
Becoming Scarlet, as the title suggests, recounts how Yevylin meets and tries to join The Scarlets. A plot device of her storytelling for the leader, The Missus, works well to allow us to get to know her while still keeping up pace and I am now eager to download the second installment!

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