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The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and they were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed uninterruptedly into one another, through their arms and their touching fingers.

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the documentary film Babies. Featuring four families across the world raising their newborn children from birth to their first steps, it celebrates the creation of life itself. It is a beautiful, sweet film and left me feeling so happy afterwards.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers…not so much.

The book opens with contrasting accounts of the childhood experiences of its two main characters, Alice and Mattia. In 1983 Alice fell from a ski-lift at a resort and seriously injured her leg. Left alone in the snow, her clothes befouled by a release of her bowels, the young girl retreated into herself as she waited to be rescued. Afterwards she becomes obsessed with controlling her eating, developing anorexia. In 1984 Mattia abandoned his disabled twin sister Michela in a public park to avoid embarrassment at a schoolfriend’s birthday party. When he returned to the spot, she had vanished. Traumatised by his part in her disappearance, Mattia begins a life-long habit of self-mutilation.

School is just a series of endless humiliating encounters for them both. Alice is picked on by a gang of girls she is desperate to fit in with. Mattia unwittingly encourages another boy into becoming infatuated with him, when he openly slicing his hand in a biology class. The tragically enraptured Dennis assumes this is a product of homosexual self-loathing. As both children grow into adolescence they eventually become friends, their intimacy founded on a mutual co-dependency and sense of alienation. They also both become obsessed with different disciplines. Mattia is a gifted mathematician, the cold austerity of numbers suiting his internalised view of the world. Alice embraces photography as a means of capturing and controlling what she sees, just as she does her food.

Paolo Giordano describes the painful process of growing up that can faced by many young people. Where I part company from him is the excessive misery described here. Alice and Mattia grow into adulthood burdened by the same psychological damage that afflicted them as children. In fact adulthood here is shown to be the aftermath of the cruel vicissitudes of childhood.

After finishing this book I was left in a depressive funk for most of the afternoon. Mainly it was due to the hopelessness of these two lost souls. Where I begin to suspect this to be a work of continental misery lit, is in the faint prospect in Mattia being reunited with his missing twin in the latter half of the book. This prospect is dangled in front of the reader by Giordano and then pulled away abruptly.

Do I want to spend a day in the company of two people with no hope, no chance and forever traumatised by two singularly tragic events? No not particularly.

Intelligently written, but dark and quite depressing.

 

One year, the girl who came to stay was the most extraordinarily beautiful creature who had ever been seen in the village. She was incredible. So many people, on walking into the pub and seeing her for the first time, would involuntarily exclaim, Jesus Christ! that she assumed this was a customary local greeting, and without thinking she started to use it herself. ‘Jesus Christ!’ she would cheerfully say, as people came in from the cold, ‘What can I get you?’

So there I was chuckling away on the couch to an early episode of The Mighty Boosh (the ‘Mod Wolves‘ one, if you are interested), when Stephanie leaned over and said ‘Don’t you have a review to write?’

How could I forget! Senility has obviously set in already.

Today’s story is set for the most part in and around a small seaside town pub known as The Anchor. It opens with three men who have spent years sharing a couple of drinks each evening, having the same conversations, peppered with the same jokes and catchphrases. Mr Puw, tall Mr Hughes and short Mr Hughes are the names they are popularly known by, although tall Mr Hughes is not all that tall and is in fact only an inch or so taller than small Mr Hughes. Mr Puw is the most cheerful of the three, enjoys making a point of smoking a pipe as most other people smoke cigarettes and has a habit of indiscriminately referring to all women of his acquaintance as ‘Thunderthighs’. The Anchor’s landlord, Mr Edwards, responds to most exchanges by saying only ‘Holy mackerel’, a phrase which can be employed in numerous contexts. Then there’s Septic Barry, the local sewage processing magnate,  who has lived on the same campsite since he ran away from home as a teenager and despite his frugal lifestyle is known for having a wide and varied lovelife.

Every year Miyuki Woodward returns to visit the town for a short holiday, renting a cottage for the duration of her stay, gorging herself on comfort food and beer and deigning to supply the answers to any questions relating to Japan when they come up in The Anchor’s pub quiz. In keeping with the offhand naming traditions of the town, she is commonly known as ‘Japanese Girl’.

The lives and loves of this small group of people are dwelt upon during the course of the novel, with Miyuki an outside observer who sits in The Anchor each evening with a novel and a pint, listening to the town gossip. Despite her outsider status she enjoys a strong feeling of fellowship with these odd characters. Over the years she has come to love the town, finding real beauty in its ordinariness. She decides to mount an art project of a sort, in an effort to share her vision of how perfect and golden the small community appears to her eyes with its inhabitants.

The novel proceeds at a leisurely pace, veering from the plot to explore comical digressions and histories on a whim. There is a bemused tone underlying the proceedings, but also a quiet sadness as well. A fateful encounter between Miyuki and tall Mr Hughes dances around the abyss of crippling depression, before side-stepping into confused conversation about blood diamonds and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then there’s the paradoxical figure of Septic Barry, serial seducer and sewer monger. He appears at first to be an entirely self-interested and miserly sort, but over the course of the book is revealed to feel tender concern to some of the other patrons of The Anchor.

Ultimately though Dan Rhodes has crafted a beautifully constructed tale about the fragility of life and love. It is a truly extraordinary book, capable of moving the reader to tears and laughter on a single page. I recommend following his blog for more pearls of wisdom from the man himself.

This is officially my favourite book of the new year, a romance about the love that can be felt for a place, as well as between people.

One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.

Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.

The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.

We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.

Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.

The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.

So why do I find this such a trite book?

In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.

This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.

This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.

She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to life even one day.

Anthony Lane’s collection of criticism Nobody’s Perfect includes his review of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Throughout he spends more time discussing the book that lies at the heart of the film, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, than he does talking about the picture itself.

Now I understand why. This is a delightful book, one that I had the pleasure of reading, well under my day limit, in a single sitting. The language flows like poetry and infuses the experimental, modernist style of Woolf’s writing with a carefully controlled fluency of expression.

In short, this is a more refined, upper-class and terribly English version of Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes, even down to a fettered stream of consciousness that skips backwards in time during a single day in London.

Clarissa Dalloway herself is a study in late-life smouldering passion. The opening sequence has her wander through a London described with a degree of vibrancy and detail usually reserved for countryside scenes. The modernist ideal is quickly sketched of man-made cities possessing just as much beauty as the natural world.

As she walks the streets we meet the other voices contained with this book. The tragic World War I veteran Septimus, traumatized by the deaths he has witnessed. His Italian wife Rezia, who cannot understand why her much decorated husband is suddenly given over to suicidal mutterings and what she perceives as cowardice. Clarissa’s former suitor Peter Walsh, returned from India and an unhappy marriage, with rumours dogging him of an affair with the wife of a British officer. Woolf also has passing strangers, servants, relations and partners speak to the reader, offering ever more rounded perspectives on each of the characters. Individual paragraphs can contain multiple takes on the one event and a day in London continues to stretch to contain this multiplicity of lives.

‘We all have our moments of depression,’

Woolf twins Septimus and Clarissa in their increasing sense of being trapped. The former has endured the horrors of war and emerged haunted by the memory of his comrade-in-arms Evans, whose death he was unable to mourn. He retreats further and further into his mind, becoming obsessed with symbols and abstract ideas, resenting his wife’s attempts to draw him back into the world. Clarissa made the sensible choice in marrying Richard Dalloway and becoming a mother. Through her reminiscence we learn how a conventional life was the furthest thing from her mind as a younger woman, tempted by the thought of a relationship with the passionate yet unfocused Peter, or her close friendship with Sally Seton, the subject of much fevered speculation as to a lesbian subtext to the novel. In fact the library book I read had long passages underlined in red pen, with a note on the page’s margin LESBIANISM.

Well, everyone has different priorities I guess.

While Septimus speaks openly of suicide and a life already over, Clarissa reflects on what might have been, what may have been lost. Her thoughts on Peter and Sally focus constantly on how important they were to her. It is interesting that the novel is closing moments are given to her husband and daughter, their regard for her a product of a real relationship, based in the here and now.

Once again I have stumbled onto a book I would rather have enjoyed to read over a couple of days. I will certainly be returning to it at a later date. Delicate and filled with a quietly observed sense of despair, an unreserved treat.

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