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Book group books
My book group has just discussed The Outcast by Sadie Jones. This was given a lot of favourable publicity and was shortlisted for big name prizes. I've just been looking at the early reviews as I wasn't sure why it was so hotly-tipped early on. One (the Observer) says it is 'pure pleasure' from the first page to the end but our group didn't agree. But another review (the Independent) last spring calls it an upscale misery memoir, and I've just written elsewhere on this board that the misery memoir is one kind of book I would always avoid!

It is the story of Lewis, a young man just out of prison, who returns to his rather posh home in a Surrey village. We don't know what his crime is at first, or how to gauge the reactions to his return. The next section covers Lewis's childhood years. Each short chapter jumps on a few years, and we get to know the social set-up in the village. Lewis's father has been away at the war and when he comes back the relationship with seven-year-old Lewis is tense. Lewis has a close relationship with his mother, a restless rather brittle woman, who finds her conventional life frustrating.  The era is the stifling late 40s and 50s and everyone behaves in a very proper fashion on the surface, but underneath the most horrible things are going on, hidden and unspoken. There is a pattern amongst their small circle of social events and church; the men go to work and the women drink and get hysterical.  After a tragedy Lewis's life gets more out of control, and we find out what his crime is. The latter part of the novel looks at his return after prison and his botched attempts to fit back into 'normal' life. The response of his family and neighbours doesn't help, and only one person - a younger girl who has long worshipped him - seems to understand him, and he her.

I don't think I have given away any secrets there. However, though some of the group were very moved by the book, and I admit that I very much wanted to find out how Lewis and Kit ended up, we couldn't see why this was a prize-winning book. There is a great deal of violence in it, a sort of suppressed violence in Lewis that comes bursting out (too often, in my opinion) and in all the men, one way or another. A couple of the group found this so unrelenting that they didn't finish the novel. This is where the misery memoir comparison comes in.  The bullying, violence, self-harm and emotional neglect, the general meanness and nastiness were pretty much unrelieved throughout; we felt it could have done with some light and shade, instead of all gloom, though where you would find the light in such a set of themes, I don't know. (One review I just read said it is entirely 'unleavened by wit' - rather nicely put !)

Perhaps some of the characters could have been more sympathetic, but aside from Lewis and Kit they aren't, particularly. The rather feudal lord of the village and boss of Lewis's father, Dicky Carmichael, is a monster, but pretty 2-dimensional, as are the wives. But the story did draw most of us in, and was felt to be a page-turner, even if it was slightly against the will.

Another criticsim was that for so much of the book the same things happen - it is set in the same few stifling interiors and gardens and the wood - with the same few people, and repeated lunches and drinks parties and church-going, or nothing whatsoever to do except sit and stew. Perhaps Jones was trying to show that it is this trivial sameness which is driving the women mad - but it didn't make for pleasurable reading. We felt that some of the 50s period atmosphere was authentic but it was too much one-note. Someone commented that the village seemed to consist only of wealthy people with silent servants - no yokels or ordinary folk allowed. The women were all rather like those fraught repressed women in British films of the 1940s - and the appearance and behaviour of one girl, Tamsin, very pretty and shallow and manipulative - seems to have come straight off a film set. Perhaps Jones did her research through films rather than real experience: she is certainly too young to have lived then.

Some reveiwers praised the elegant writing style, but I found it rather lacking.  One member got very irritated by the endless clauses joined with 'and', often four of five actions in a sentence. This may not matter when used only every so often but it is a stylistic habit that is frequently repeated here, and the sentences can seem quite banal. We were expecting more from someone whose style is praised as elegant and disciplined. But it was an easy read, or a quick read, because of this - you didn't stop to think about metaphor or simile!

So on the whole although most of us read it to the end, it was not with pure pleasure, due to the grimness. It didn't feel like one of those books you would want to think about for long afterwards, only to be glad that we were no longer in the 1950s, or that the 1950s we experienced and remembered was not as awful as that. So not a jolly read, or an uplifting one.
Book group books
We have just had our first book club meeting for the year and I hadn't intended to write about the book, as it is a NZ one.  But it couldn't be further away from the one you have reviewed, Freyda.  

Our book was Purple Heart about a young Samoan who is diagnosed (too late) with rheumatic heart disease and undergoes 5 operations, all of them with the distinct possibility of death as the outcome.  The man himself was writing it and he wrote with a good deal of humour and a rather chatty style.  His interactions with his hospital companions, some of whom were very openly racist, were entertaining and showed someone who enjoyed people and could learn from them.  It was a lovely heart-warming sort of book.  The writing wasn't great; there were some passages which didn't follow on well, and he only touched on some quite big aspects of his life (becoming a father at the age of 17, for instance). But the grammar and vocabulary didn't jar; it was more that the style was a little unusual and very much in the form of someone talking.  

The role of the extended family and its importance for Samoan people was stressed and he was greatly helped by them, even in small humorous ways such as them smuggling enough Kentucky Fried Chicken to feed themselves and the others in the room (one must assume with some turning a blind eye by the staff).

Our next book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  The reaction of one of our members who has read it was most encouraging, as has been the general opinion of people on this board, so I am looking forward to it. (Though I will keep it for a couple of weeks, so it is still fresh for the discussion.)
Cheers, Caro.
Book group books
I will be very interested to hear what you think of The Road, Caro. It is the only Mc Carthy I have read and I thought it was very powerful indeed but be prepared to be upset!
Book group books
Having had a pleasantly alcoholic evening last Friday discussing Ibsen's The Wild Duck, our next book group choice is The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I've been meaning to read Wharton for some time now, and am looking forward to this.

I'll finish Romeo and Juliet first, and I'll spend the next week or two reading the next two plays in my Project Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard II) - as these plays seem to be the product of the same creative implse that had reslted in Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet - and then I think I'll give Will a break, and read the Wharton novel.
Book group books
I suspect you will like The Age of Innocence, Himadri.  We read one of Wharton's for our book club a few years (probably that one but I can't quite remember) and none of us liked it.  I don't like anything that reminds me of Henry James and she reminded me of him.  It was just a claustrophobic sort of book about people that didn't interest us somehow.  Too far away from our experiences which shouldn't matter, perhaps, but did.  

And her writing was too contained for my liking.  It didn't appeal at all and I have no desire to read any more of her.

Cheers, Caro.
Book group books
I liked The Age of Innocence.

I am reading Being Dead by Jim Crace for my next book group meetng but haven't got very far with it yet.
Book group books
Just putting in my support for Edith Wharton and The Age of Innocence, and all her other books too. Ethan Frome is very different from the rest, but it is a wonderful, sad, snowy book. I wonder if you would like that one better, Caro?  It's also very short!

Bouncy young American heiresses "doing" wealthy turn of the century Europe, or being fixed up with impoverished titled folk, are far from my experience, too, but I like her shrewd observations of men and women. I can't really get on with Henry James, try as I might, because I get lost in all his circumlocutions and hints and don't know how I should be interpreting them (I'm mainly referring to Portrait of a Lady here, I did better with his shorter novels.) I find Wharton much more straightforward.
Book group books
My book group book for this month was The Road Home by Rose Tremain. I've read a couple of other boks by her and I was quite pleased to be reading another.
It is the story of Lev who comes to England to make enough money to help his daughter and mother to survive in the nameless East European country he has come from. It gives an outsider's view of this country (pre recession) and explores themes like exploitation, prejudice and the immigrant community. Lev is a hard working rather naive man who is obviously rather good looking as many women seem to fall for him. I was not madly impressed with the book as I found the ending very hurried and the characterisation not convincing. The blurb compares it to Candide by Voltaire but to my mind Candide is a million times better. Perhaps I am missing something and I shall be interested to hear what the group thinks on the 19th.
Book group books
Thanks for that, Ann. I've been wondering whether to buy The Road Home. Then a friend described it as so-so, and your comments back that up. Not dashing out to the bookshop, then. I wonder why books like this get such a good press?

Freyda
Book group books
The Road Home isn't perfect but it is a good read nonetheless.  My group read it last month and it scored a respectable 7/10.

Full review here.
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