bookgazing: (i heart books)
Eva from 'A Striped Armchair' has kindly said that I can try out her useful one sentence review style in this post, so that I can catch you up on my thoughts about some of the books I never quite got around to reviewing in 2011. Time for me to let loose with one of my favourite, forbidden, forms of writing (the run on sentence).

Books I Loved and Found Every Page a Delight

Read 'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry if you enjoy big family saga narratives, set in India, that have multiple storylines, like 'A Suitable Boy', but you want a novel that looks at the realities of being a poorer member of Indian society.

Reread 'Persuasion' by Jane Austen if you need a reminder that even in Austen's time quiet but strong, on the shelf heroines could get the guy ;) For a more in depth look at one of the greatest stories ever told you should check out the series of posts Book Snob put up during the Persuasion readalong that she held last year: First Impressions, Emotion and Persuasion's Men

Reread 'Jazz' by Toni Morisson if you're looking for a literary novel full of drama, with a distinctive narrative style, which successfully calls forth empathy for people who can at times be rather unpleasant.

Books I Would Have Loved, Except for One or Two Little Quibbles or Books I Really, Really Liked

Read 'The Locusts Have No King' by Dawn Powell if you liked Powell's 'The Happy Island', or you enjoy satires about people who may have taken a wrong turn and reached bittersweet endings.

Read 'Miss Hargreaves' by Frank Baker if you fancy a fun farce mixed with fantasy, populated by a set of characters who sometimes test a readers' patience.

Read 'Iceland' by Betsy Tobin if you love straight mythic retellings, written in modern language, that are told from a female perspective and are in the mood for a rather breezy read.

Books I Definitely Liked, Although They Didn’t Blow Me Away or Books that had Great Points Counterbalanced by Not-Great Ones

Read 'Wild Life' by Molly Gloss if you'd like to read a novel which contains a touch of sci-fi/fantasy and follows a female writer with progressive ideas, trying to carve a space to write in and you don't mind a bit of a meandering plot.

Books That Aren’t For Me but I Could Still See Some Good Points

Read 'Journey By Moonlight' by Antal Szerb if you're interested in creepy family relations, or past obsessive love, with bleeds into the present, souring life and you can put up with a bit of a self-indulgent narrator.

Read 'Have His Carcase' by Dorothy L Sayers if you loved 'Strong Poison', (which I did and you can read a bit about why in my post on 'Strong Poison') so you want to make sure you know everything that's happened between Harriet and Peter before you read 'Gaudy Night', which means you’re fine with a mystery plot that is nonsensical and takes too long to unravel.

Read 'My Legendary Girlfriend' by Mike Gayle if you're looking for a funny story about a guy in his mid twenties and you don't mind that his main focus is still the girl who dumped him two years ago, or that the comparisons between this book and 'Bridget Jones' on the back cover are mistaken, because if Bridget had spent a whole novel going on about a man who had broken up with her two years ago, who she doesn't even see for most of the book, then she would have been called a stalker, or a whiner and the book would never have sold as well because double standards exist, but also because she would have been really dull.

*Ahem*. That last one got a bit out of control, didn't it?

Thanks so much for letting me have a go at this format Eva. If I can ever do you a blogging favour just ask.
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The delightfully spiteful battles of Dawn Powell’s The Happy Island’ were just what I needed to throw me out of my funk. Sometimes there’s nothing nicer than seeing characters quarrel, cry and backbite so much that you feel positively saintly in comparison. Bless Dawn Powell for calmly skewering the 1930s set of New York’s professional party goers and curses that she isn’t here to do the same for the WAG set.

‘The Happy Island’ begins with a young playwright, Jefferson Abbot, arriving in New York, summoned from his small farm on Silver City to fix the third act of his play. Jefferson meets a rather oily musician called Van Deusen on the bus ride to New York. To say Jefferson is less than receptive to Van Deusen’s attempts at friendship is putting it in much politer terms than Jeff would ever use. Later in the book Van Deusen is established as a chancer who has returned to New York to sponge off friends and use his contacts to re-establish himself as a successful pianist, but in this first exchange Van Deusen reveals himself as a name dropper, ‘a dangerous man-about-town’ who is a little too eager to make an acquaintance. The kind of man who offers his help, but ends up being helped by someone else’s twenty pound note, or spare room:

‘ “You could do me a favour by mentioning that you saw me. Put him in the mood so I can look him up. You might say I’m planning to give a concert here. Mention my name – Van Deusen. Perhaps I can do you a favour sometime. Do you know anyone else?” '

From Jeff’s first brusque refusal to engage with such a charming, yet false character it seems that Dawn Powell is establishing him as the stalwart hero who champions authenticity, accidentally living in a city that values deception, for its prettiness. He is shown hiding from parties, trying to work on his play. He rejects the help of his host Dol, a sponsor of talent and a well know party giver, who thinks Jeff should learn the ropes of how to work New York’s fashionable, creative scene. In a letter he writes after fleeing Dol’s house he says ‘Looking around, I seem to think those ropes are for hanging the people that know them. They’d hang me...’, showing that Jeff is a man who rejects social conventions in favour of an unencumbered method of creation. When his play is savaged by the critics and public, Jeff sees the panning as proof that the people watching his play aren’t interested in authenticity and that this validates his play, as he hates the falseness of the people around him. As proud and deluded as that attitude might sound, I would guess that few readers will question it, as by that time the hilariously shallow lives of the New York set have been fully exposed.

For Dawn Powell doesn’t skimp on the satire, cheerfully revealing the ridiculously conventional lives of the New York ‘batchelor’ set who live to be unconventional. ‘The Happy Island’ is extremely episodic, at least I hope I’m using that word right – each chapter is like a sketch of an event and could be separated out as a brief short story because each chapter has a miniature conclusion. This allows Dawn Powell to include lots of different characters from the social circle that Jeff despises and by including so many layers of vacuous, sharp tongued people she gives the reader the overwhelming impression that Jeff is right and all the New York set are people who should be laughed at. And I did grin, even as I was JUDGING them, because there are lots of funny episodes in ‘The Happy Island’. Take this one where a woman called Jeanne has left her husband for her lover, who is mortified she’s come to stay, but can’t refuse her because she is his bosses wife and that would be terribly insulting. What does a wife do once she reaches her lovers flat, why call her husband of course:

‘ “Harvey, dear,” Jean choked into the phone. “I just wanted to tell you this is one of the biggest, finest things you’ve ever done. Steve wants to thank you, too. Here, Steve.”

Steve reluctantly faced the mouthpiece thrust at him.

“Thanks,” he said briefly.

“We’re terribly happy, Harvey,” said Jean. “We went to the Voodoo dancers after Prudence and to Hamburger Mary’s and now we’re here all alone. Steve wants to tell you how happy he is.”

“Awfully happy, old man,” Steve barked into the phone.

“You sound so tired and miserable, Harvey dear. Take couple of luminal, why don’t you if you can’t sleep…You did?...I hope they work. I’ll call back in a little while to see if they did.” '

The group’s calculated artifice is epitomised by Prudence Bly, the closest thing to a heroine in ‘The Happy Island’. Prudence is a nightclub singer of great popularity, who grew up in Silver City at the same time as Jeff. Prudence ran away to New York’s and joined the society of performers at a young age. Now well established in New York she has cast off her background and any chance at a real personality. She almost fears expressing anything real and operates in an artificial way, cutting her associates down with easy wit, disguised as flattery. While readers will find Prudence funny as she throws out her slyly harsh chatter, this new Prudence is not the girl Jeff wants. Even though at the beginning of the novel he wants to reconnect with her, in the first few pages of the book, he refuses to engage with her after finding her changed.

At first Jeff’s reaction to Prudence seems like Dawn Powell doling out the moral message of her satire. She clearly finds the way most of her New York characters lead their lives rather silly, although she often treats them with as much affection as scorn. Jeff’s negative reaction to Prudence and her New York life seems intended to point out the right path for a life to take, but it’s not as simple as that. Jeff can also be cruel, in fact he requires himself to be truthfully unkind to preserve his genuine personality, which he thinks is integral to making art. At one point he tells Prudence ‘If there was a choice between you and my work you’d be the one to go.’ which may be truthful, may be a necessary sentiment for an artist to preserve their core and work well, but it seems unnecessarily hard to tell someone that. He also never considers that his version of meaningful truth (outside of his playwriting) is just one version of truth that really only applies to him. He never thinks about the way that other people must manage the world to keep his dream of authenticity alive.

There is a poignant, monologue of thoughts near the end of the book that shows how Jeff’s demands for authenticity from Prudence inhibit her and force her into a domestic role that is no more truthful than her role in New York. Jeff and Prudence have eventually worked it all out (the back cover will tell you that so I’m not spoiling) and Prudence moves back to Silver City with him, but Prudence must make compromises to follow the love she feels. Among other things Prudence thinks:

‘I’ll tell about the kind of simplicity he loved: a big house with no maids to interfere with his flow of thought, so all the simplicity had to be worked out by the little woman or else there was complicity instead. How he stayed in his study all day while she swept and tried her damnedest to fasten up curtains and to cook and count things for the laundry and have a vegetable garden like the simple peasants did and mend stoves and socks and pick berries and fry chicken because all those things show how honest you are, whereas trying to fix up your cracked fingernails or brush your hair is a sure sign of something phony.’

This monologue reveals that Jeff and the men he associates with, create a gendered version of integrity. To prove herself honest, a woman must embrace the confines of their systems just as she previously embraced the conventions of the society they find phony.

These thoughts of Prudence’s may be full of terrified authenticity, but they’re still constructed as tales she will tell when she returns to New York and they are in part an angry, rather bored show. The complicated reality of Prudence’s feeling, the part she won’t reveal to anyone comes later when she talks about ‘the frantic desperate love I knew at nights’ and ‘waking up to a village with my grave in it and feeling that this real person he was after was already in that grave, had been there for twelve years and the other half was now being killed because New York was in its lungs.’ Prudence’s New York identity may be false, but her Silver City identity is also constructed and her original escape from Silver City was an admirable attempt to be herself, not as Jeff sees it an attempt to put on airs. And in these last moments with Prudence it’s suddenly clear just how much of a heroine she might be, or might have been if only the world wasn’t so keen on lies and boxes.

The introduction to ‘The Happy Island’ mentions that this is not one of Dawn Powell’s acclaimed novels and was the last to be reissued when Gore Viddal started his campaign to bring Powell’s books back into circulation. It perhaps lacks the clarity of
‘Dance Night’, maybe because the cast of characters is a little too large. What I love about this novel is that there are so many different storylines to explore. I could have written this review focusing on any number of things: Jeanne and Prudence’s harsh friendship and their sudden cohabitation, presumably as lovers, James and Dol’s passing about of a pretty young man named Bert, the young Brent couple drawn into a mess of affairs. And each route of exploration is just as interesting as the last. Plus the book is funny in that light, stabbing way that characterises my favourite kind of classics. I pass it on as a remedy for a dark mood.
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Like dogs and their owners places and their place names often seem to resemble each other. New York sounds sharp, flashy and exciting, while Slough sounds undeniably depressing and dull (no offense, but when I visited Slough it did not scream ‘fun’). And so it is with Lamptown, the setting for Dawn Powell’s novel ‘Dance Night’, which is a small, safe, ordinary town that doesn’t stand out in any special way. For the main characters of ‘Dance Night’ Lamptown is both the safe haven where they feel secure and the small frame that keeps their expansive dreams from becoming reality.

Morry Abbott is the son of the local milner, Elsinore and her cruel, travelling salesman husband Charles. On one of his infrequent visits home Charles pushes Morry to support his mother financially, so Morry takes a job at the Works, Lamptown’s factory and principle source of industry. Morry has vague dreams of being a big shot in Lamptown, but has no idea how he might achieve this goal, in fact dreaming about doing something seems to almost satisfy him. However, when he befriends a younger girl Jen St Clare, who has been adopted by the local saloon owner to help his mother with her work, and Jen’s adoration makes Morry restless to the point where he tries to make his dreams a reality. The pressure that Morry feels causes him to misinterpret his own feelings and makes him determined that Jen shall not have a hold on him, which makes for a painful situation for both characters.

Lamptown is a place that provokes conflicting emotions in its inhabitants. Morry and Jen often determine to leave the town, but then become incredibly invested in improving Lamptown and their position in it. Their inability to leave somewhere they believe they dislike and ultimately their indecision about whether they really want to break from somewhere that offers safety is a theme that runs through many other characters lives. Powell writes characters who make it hard to see whether the best course of action is to let go, or to hold on. Some characters are unable to let go, but would undoubtedly be better off if they did, for example Bill Delaney, the saloon owner who is often crippled by the memory of a train crash that happened when he was operating engines. It seems that some characters will never do as well outside of Lamptown, as they have done in the town, such as Charles Hunt who is shown up as a minor player when other men of business begin to arrive in Lamptown. Jen and Morry must grapple with the contradictory fear that leaving Lamptown inspires, even as they come to recognise that Lamptown is not able to give them everything they want.

I suspect that Morry’s mother’s storyline captures Powell’s personal thoughts about letting go and holding on. Elsinore contentedly accepts her bitter husband’s demands and lives for the weekly dance night when she can be near Harry Fischer, the town dancing master. Neither of these distant attachments are healthy for her as Charles is jealous and works to restrict his wife’s innocent enjoyment, even though he sleeps with women on his travels and Fischer fails to notice Elsinore’s interest in him, while she exists in a state of limbo waiting to be near him. After discovering Fischer’s relationship with another woman in town, after hearing her husband explicitly accuse her of adultery when she is blameless, Elsinore acts to dramatically cut her connections with these men. After her life changes Powell seems to make Elsinore’s personality harder and it is questionable whether her life is much better, or if it is just different. I don’t think that matters so much, readers can make their own judgements about whether Elsinore’s business success is more important than her new hard nature (I’m still out on that myself), the important thing for Powell is that her character has made a decision, which means that her life can progress. The decision may turn out to be wrong, but it is better than the perpetual indecision that Morry suffers.

There’s so much right with this book that it’s impossible to fit it all in to one review. Jen, I haven’t even talked about what a wonderful character Jen is! She’s scrappy and purposeful, but also a dreamer who is sometimes afraid. Her fear and the way she embraces the small, imperfect Lamptown, because she’s never had a true home before make her so much more than a courageous orphan girl. I found the sections of the book told from her perspective really made the rest of the world disappear for me.

In fact all the female characters made a significant impact on me, even the proud and disagreeable characters like Nettie and Dode. They’re just more present, more active than the men who are always to be found in the saloon talking. The women have to be forthright because there are hundreds of them competing for status and dates in a town where men are scarce. Their pushy showiness and angry battle for control angers Morry, as he feels incapable of getting on and making the best decision, while the women around him act. His mother’s placid lack of drive in the beginning of the book and Jen’s sister’s lack of opinion is why he adores these two women, but just before the end of the book he seems to realise that he needs something more from a woman. He needs a truly challenging woman who will slap his face, rather than the easy compliance he seems to find in even the most disagreeable Lamptown natives.

There’s quite a bit in the novel about youthful idealism and whether it’s foolish, or terribly important. One of my favourite quotes from the book shows what Morry thinks about this subject:

‘That’s the way people were. Nobody believed in the things you believed but yourself, nobody believed that even you were really sincere about it, people believed whatever was good business for them at the time. Nobody believed in anything but good business. Clover Heights was blown up, the world was blown up, by good business. Everybody knelt to good business. No use counting on anybody having faith in an idea for it’s own sake. ’

That really resonates with me and I think it gives a little flavour of why ‘Dance Night’ is relevant today. Hopefully it also shows the quality of Powell’s writing, which I can only compare to what it might feel like to eat the best chocolate cake, while knowing that the cake is doing your body good. It’s such a smooth read, readers might assume it’s, light and inconsequential prose being used to express Powell’s complex ideas, but on examination it is clear just how hard Powell must have had to work to ensure such a swift passage for her readers. More please.

I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s reviewed this book in the comments (especially about the ending, do you think Morry will stick to his guns and will Jen forgive him?) and please leave a link to your review if you want me to link to it at the bottom of this post.

Other Reviews

A Work in Progress
Tales from the Reading Room
Of Books and Bicycles


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October 2014

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