Monthly Archives: December 2015

THE TAXIDERMIST’S DAUGHTER by Kate Mosse

the taxidermist's daughter by kate mosse

Kate Mosse’s books seem to be everywhere and I’ve tended to avoid them because historical fiction isn’t really my thing. But I enjoyed a TV adaptation of Labyrinth a few years ago and the reviews of THE TAXIDERMIST’S DAUGHTER seemed encouraging, so I decided to overcome my prejudices and give this a go.

The daughter in question is Constantia Gifford, or Connie, who, we gradually learn, suffered some kind of trauma as a child that left her with memory loss and a tendency to slip out of time, whilst experiencing vivid flashes of the past. We pick up her story as these episodes are becoming more pronounced, prompted by present day events and encounters that are stirring up buried memories.

The novel opens with a midnight gathering in the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Mary in the Sussex village of Fishbourne (“where the saltwater estuary leads out to the sea”). It’s the Eve of St Mark, when it’s believed that “the ghosts of those destined to die in the coming year will be seen walking into the church at the turning of the hour”. Connie’s father is one of those partaking in the superstitious ritual and she has surreptitiously followed  him to the churchyard where she sees others who, like herself, are watching the gathered villagers from the shadows, and hears one of them ask “Is she here?” As the bells toll midnight, the church doors are flung open, a flock of small birds break free and, in the ensuing chaos, a woman is throttled to death with taxidermist’s wire.

Dark and disturbing, this sets the scene for the rest of the book, which is a mix of folklore, ghost story and grisly murder fiction. Birds feature heavily, with jackdaws, crows, magpies and rooks aplenty – beware if you suffer from ornithophobia – both as sinister harbingers of death and also as deliverers of justice. THE TAXIDERMIST’S DAUGHTER is Victorian Gothic to the letter, a melodramatic tale of mysterious secrets and bloodthirsty revenge, made all the more compelling for being very determinedly rooted in authenticity.

Mosse grew up on the Sussex mudflats s and the landscape is vividly and accurately rendered in all its beautiful and menacing desolation. Her descriptions of the natural world capture so much detail and are exquisitely lyrical. The flooded Fishbourne marshes provide a wild and vast backdrop for the novel’s moral climax and thrum with a pathetic fallacy that works so well because Mosse knows and understands the landscape intimately – this is no convenient literary device, it’s humanity as an integral part of nature (something I feel all the more strongly for writing this in the wake of the Paris climate talks and as parts of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire are under water in some of the worst floods Britain has ever seen). Mosse is equally authoritative when it comes to the intricacies of the art of taxidermy, with quotes from Mrs R Lee’s 1820 seminal text on “The Art of Collecting, Preparing and Mounting objects of natural history”, and exacting accounts of disemboweling, skinning and stuffing. Even the symbolism with which the book is replete, from the decaying bird corpse that Connie patiently tends to the crumbling isolation of her father’s house on the edge of the village, has been painstakingly researched.

The story itself is rather flimsy by comparison – coincidences abound and the amnesia, blackmail, sectioning to a mental asylum and collective sexual perversions of Sussex’s elite feel barely credible when set aside the other elements of the book. But it’s credit to Mosse’s considerable talents that somehow none of that matters. As one of the reviews influencing my decision to read THE TAXIDERMIST’S DAUGHTER, puts it: “Frankly, it’s a cock and bull story, but so pleasurable is Mosse’s storytelling brio that the reader is willingly borne along.”

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DARK PLACES BY Gillian Flynn

dark places by gillian flynn

GONE GIRL this isn’t, though it does have the same kind of unlikable and unreliable characters centre stage and a page turning plot that seems designed for our cinema screens. It seems Hollywood agrees and Charlize Theron has been cast in the film of the book and will play Libby Day, whose mother and two sisters were brutally murdered when she was eight years old. Thirty years later she’s approached by a sort of murder fan club to revisit the crimes and make contact with her brother, Ben, who was convicted of the killings. The story unfolds from different perspectives, alternating between the present day and various leads Libby is following up and accounts of what happened leading up the the murders. We get Ben’s story, which involves drugs, Satanism, teenage alienation and a manipulative girlfriend named Diondra. And we hear Libby’s mother’s side of things too, including how she struggles to run the family’s Kansas farm, about being abandoned by the children’s father and how she deals with the accusations flying around about Ben in the run up to her death.

Flynn is a devotee of the cliff hanger and she switches between past and present, as well as different individual voices, to great effect in so far as leaving readers on the edge of their seats. But I tired a little of this as the book got going and found myself skim reading some of the sections set in the present day in order to reach Patty and Ben’s far more compelling narratives. This was heightened by how I felt about the adult Libby, whose characterisation is complex for a novel of this kind, yet somehow not clever enough to elicit much in the way of sympathy. Selfish and mercenary, Libby sells scraps of paper bearing hand written notes between her murdered sisters, resents the missing children who usurpe her front page presence in the headlines, and has few qualms about exploiting those obsessed by what happened to her family. Intellectually this is credible, not least because Libby is damaged first by the trauma of her family’s murder then by the way she’s treated in the aftermath. But I felt no genuine emotional connection with her character and, although the process of learning the truth about Ben’s involvement and confronting her long absent father suggest there might be some potential for healing and recovery, ultimately this is grim and gritty fiction with barely a glimmer of light, hope or forgiveness breaking through into the dark places.

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A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

a little life by hanya yanagihara

This story of friendship and endurance made me cry pretty much every day. Granted, I’ve been feeling emotionally wrung out anyway by the terror attacks on Paris in particular and the inevitability that the UK’s response would be to drop bombs on Syria. And it’s winter, I’m exhausted and this time of year always makes me melancholy. But more than anything, my tears flowed because this book asserts that love and friendship aren’t always enough to overcome the damage humans are capable of inflicting on one another. Every one of its 700 pages is intense, raw and addictive – Yanagihara broke my heart over and over again but I couldn’t stop myself going back for more.

Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude meet at university. They are intelligent and ambitious, with an obvious affection for one another that’s evident from the opening pages of A LITTLE LIFE. But whilst the architect, artist, actor and lawyer share cramped flats and formative experiences, we soon become aware that Jude has secrets that are not so readily shared. How these secrets define him and his sense of self, as well as the dynamic between the rest of the friendship group, is the emotional core of this novel. As readers, bit by bit, we are given more of an insight into his past than anyone in Jude’s present until very close to the end of the book, and it becomes the prism through which every interaction between Jude and the others is viewed. The way they care for him is all the more powerful for the fact that it’s entirely prompted by who Jude is now, rather than any knowledge of the things that have happened to hurt him. This, coupled with the New York setting, the absence of any cultural, political or other landmarks, and the professional success all four men enjoy, seems designed to raise the possibility of leaving the past behind, of re-creation and of writing new versions of history. But Jude is deeply scarred, both emotionally and physically, and whilst he and his friends try to heal him, often literally, none of the good that happens to him as an adult can quite bury the demons from his childhood.

Graphic, but never gratuitously so, Yanagihara’s writing takes us to dark and disturbing places. This is essentially a portrait of a man broken beyond repair, who cuts himself at least once a week and has survived unspeakable abuse, and much of this is documented with an honesty that hits you hard in the gut.   It’s also full of surprises. Not the plot twist kind, although there are some of these, but more the unexpected beauty and humour that spill forth – from the tenderness between Willem and Jude, for example, and the wit with which the art scene JB inhabits is depicted.

If there are flaws in A LITTLE LIFE they are to do with the pacing, which in turn means some of the characters are left undeveloped as the focus narrows in on Jude – they seem simply there to assist the plot as it relates to him. At times the prose is over wrought, occasionally the melodrama unconvincing, but the universal appeal of Jude as the child we all carry within us, the fear of being found out as not quite good enough, carries us through and beyond these moments. It takes a lot to make me feel so bleak and despairing of humanity and, whilst I hope that feeling won’t last too long, I have to hand it to A LITTLE LIFE for having such a profound effect – it definitely deserves its place on the Man Booker shortlist.

 

 

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