Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

Saint Jack by Paul Theroux ~ 1973. This edition: Penguin, 1997. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004157-5. 223 pages.

It [to be successful] was my yearning, though success is nasty and spoils you, the successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without the winch of money. If the rich were correct, I reasoned, what choice had they made? Really, was disappointment virtue and comfort vice and poverty like a medicine that was good because it stung? The President of the United States, in a sense the king of the world, said he had the loneliest job on earth; where did that leave a feller like me?

The theatrically convulsed agony of the successful is the failure’s single comfort. ‘Look how similar we are,’ both will exclaim: ‘We’re each lonely!’ But one is rich, he can choose his poison. So strictly off my own bat I gave myself a chance to choose – I would take the tycoon’s agony and forgo the salesman’s. I said I wanted to be rich, famous if possible, drink myself silly and sleep till noon. I might have put it more tactfully: I wanted the wealth to make a free choice. I was not pleading to be irresponsible; if I was rich and vicious I would have to accept blame…

Jack Flowers, failed one-time hippy and now moderately successful ship chandler’s assistant and rather more successful supplier-of-the-six-sexual-vices to sailors, servicemen and tourists visiting Singapore, receives a chilling intimation of mortality when a chance acquaintance of the same age collapses and dies in the bar where Jack has been drinking (mostly but not always after working hours) for the last fifteen years.

Makes a feller think, you know.

And then inspires said feller to write down the story of his life-so-far.

Jack Flowers was born John Fiori, son of Italian immigrants in Boston, and how he ends up in Singapore, living his shadow life as handler of a bevy of willing (that’s the story and he’s sticking to it) Asian prostitutes, is the bare bones of this tale.

Well, Jack has had a lot of cash pass through his hands, but he’s never attained wealthy, though he’s being quite serious when he says he wants to be, and he’s not vicious either, which has a great deal to do with why riches have eluded him.

The self-portrait that emerges (always bearing in mind that the most unreliable narrator can often be the one focussed mainly on himself) is of a basically good man, doing the best he can in the situation he has found himself in. The pimp with a heart of gold, in fact, to turn the cliché upside down.

When Theroux is on his game he writes like a veritable angel. A fallen angel, perhaps, with sooty wings and smutty face, but nonetheless an angel. Saint Jack shows him to be very much on his game. (Pun fully intended.)

This early novel is a sardonically happy thing, and I found myself utterly on the narrator’s side throughout.

Did I say how funny I found this novel? It’s very funny. Especially the tale of the cursed tattoos. (Or maybe better described as tattooed curses.) Anyway, good stuff.

The writer being Paul Theroux, and Saint Jack being concerned with prostitution (though not just with prostitution) you would be correct in assuming that there is a lot of sex in here. Don’t let that put you off.

10/10.

Oh, yes. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The novel was made into a movie in 1979,  surreptitiously shot on location despite the refusal of the Singaporean officials to give permission and permits. The movie was subsequently banned in Singapore between 1980 and 2006, because of its unflattering depiction of the “bad old days” underbelly of Singapore’s notorious street life, at a time when the civic image-scrubbers were trying to clean things up.

Kind of makes you want to find a copy and watch it, doesn’t it? Just because.

Read Full Post »

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart ~ 1971. This edition: Brockhampton Press, 1971. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Hardcover. ISBN: -340-15203-6. 127 pages.

In the interests of keeping caught up with my ACOB self-imposed committment, I’m going to try to zip off three quick book posts tonight, of absolutely dissimilar novels, so hold on to your hats.

All three books (this one, Out of the Deeps/The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, Saint Jack by Paul Theroux) deserve the full scholarly treatment, but they’re not going to get it today – at least not from me.

Starting with the “easiest”, then. Here we go!

This juvenile adventure story from the romantic thriller writer Mary Stewart was her first published work for younger readers, and it is an absolute charmer.

The whole time I read this one (and it’s a quick read, maybe 2 hours, tops) all I could think of is what a fantastic read-aloud book it would be. It only needed a warm little body or two snuggled close to make it absolute heaven. This one is going on the extra-special save-for-eventual-grandkids shelf. If you don’t have a handy one that belongs to you around, it’s almost worth borrowing a small child for!

Poor Mary, indeed! Parents gone off to America for a month, older twin siblings happily off visiting friends, and Mary’s own much-anticipated stay with cousins-by-the-sea cancelled unexpectedly, our young protagonist is landed with an elderly aunt in the deepest depths of the country.

Great-Aunt Charlotte is kind as kind can be, but she’s mostly deaf and spends a lot of time napping, and her flustery lady-companion isn’t much of a kindred spirit to a 10-year-old girl either. The few local children of a similar age are away, so Mary is reduced to following the brusque (though kindly) gardener around, hindering him in his work as she tries to help. Nothing is going right; what a dismal summer this is turning into…

We all know what happens next, right?

Yes, Mary meets an unexpected friend. In this case, the friend turns out to be a small black cat with emerald-green eyes, who chums up in the most satisfactory fashion, finding his way into Mary’s room at night, purring his way into her heart.

Tib, as the gardener christens the cat, is a feline of purpose and initiative, and he promptly and firmly leads Mary into the woods, to a secluded copse of oak trees, where she finds the most wonderful thing she has ever seen. It’s a mysterious flower:

The leaves, set in stiff rosettes, were of a curious bluish-green, mottled like frogs, and above them on slender stems hung the flowers, clusters of graceful purple bells, whose throats were streaked with silver, and whose pistils, like long tongues, thrust out of the freaked throats in stabs of bright gold.

Mary knelt down on the fallen branch and gazed at the flowers, while beside her sat the little black cat waving his black tail, and watching her out of his green, green eyes.

Turns out that the flower has some interesting properties, related to the requirements of witches, and before she knows it Mary finds herself mounted on a disturbingly lively broomstick, whooshing through the clouds, Tib hanging on for dear life. Down they eventually come, to the gates of a large country house, all turrets and battlements and such. A large sign informs Mary that she has come to ENDOR COLLEGE, All Examinations Coached for by A Competent Staff of Fully-Qualified Witches…

Swept up by Headmistress Mumblechook, Mary tries and tries to explain that she really shouldn’t be there, but her explanation falls on deaf ears (or are they?) and she gets the grand tour befits a newly enrolled student.

Things turn forbodingly grimmer the deeper and deeper Mary gets into the situation, and, well, let’s leave it right there.

Let me just say that these witches aren’t of the benevolent white magic type, they are well and truly up to mischief, and Mary will need all the luck that comes her way in order to extricate herself from their grasp.

The grand finale chase scene is worthy of Mary Stewart at her action sequence best (which is very good indeed), and the ending is quite lovely, in that everyone gets what they deserve.

Though I had to dock a full point in my personal ratings system for an utter lack of discussion as to why the Endor College witches and wizards are up to the awful thing it is that they are up to – and my adult brain really wanted to know what that motivation was, though likely a young reader/listener wouldn’t care a jot – this one gets a happy 9/10.

I was inspired to bring this book down from the shelf where it has been sitting ever since its lucky acquisition a year or so ago at a library book sale by this post at There Will Be Books.

Grateful thanks to Karyn for the nudge. I had been waiting for the right time to read The Little Broomstick; it was on my radar for sure because I’d heard about the anime based on it just a few months ago, and I was startled and quite pleased to see one of Mary Stewart’s works in the spotlight – I have a deep fondness for her vintage for-adults thrillers – and I remember telling myself, “You’d better read that children’s book. Soon!”

Yes, indeed, it has indeed happened that this slight but engrossing tale has been picked up by Japanese anime Studio Ponoc, the new home of a number of ex-Studio Ghibli animators, and reworked into an action-adventure film titled Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Three rousing cheers for Japanese readers of old English-language children’s books, for in recent years we have seen a number of these reimagined with respectful and clever transformation into a whole different art form, namely Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, The Secret World of Arriety (based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers), and Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There.

If you are in the B.C. lower mainland and are even the slightest bit tuned in to anime culture, I envy you greatly, as you will have a chance to watch Mary and the Witch’s Flower at the Vancouver International Film Festival in the coming week. (Subtitled trailer here, and English-dubbed trailer here.) And a treat it will no doubt be, whether or not you bring a child with you as your cover ploy!

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

The Victorian Album by Evelyn Berckman ~ 1973. This edition: Doubleday, 1973. Hardcover. 222 pages.

Rather a good gothic-suspense-supernaturalish-thriller, set in the time of its writing, the early 1970s.

Lorna Teasdale, sixtyish, never married, shares her accommodations and her life with her twenty-something niece, Christabel, who was orphaned at a young age and became Lorna’s adored ward.

The two coexist in perfect harmony, with Christabel doing very well in her calling as an assistant antique dealer/interior decorator – to become a museum curator is her long-term goal – and Lorna working as a much-in-demand private seamstress.

They are getting by nicely, until they are evicted from their London apartment due to its upcoming demolition; new flats are planned for its location. Scrambling to find an affordable place to live in the red-hot housing market – does this sound familiar to anyone? – some things never change! – the two end up leasing the entire first floor of a rundown pre-Victorian house, owned by the dour and sour Mrs Rumbold and her hard-as-nails social-climbing daughter.

Unemployed due to the relocation, Lorna, once the flat renovations are complete, finds herself bored and at loose ends. Giving in to an impulse, she takes advantage of her landlady’s morning shopping routine to snoop about in the attic of the house, and on her first foray returns to her flat with a dusty Victorian-era photograph album, with which she becomes obsessed. Who are the people portrayed, and what are their relationships to each other? To the house itself? And which one  – or ones – of them were involved in the murder-in-this-very-house which Mrs Rumbold has referred to with salacious glee but not much detail?

Channeling the past in a very up close and personal way, Lorna finds herself drawn into a situation in which she feels that other (other-worldly!) forces are at work…

All in the very best, very chilling, gorgeously sardonic Norah Lofts tradition.

Why haven’t I heard of Evelyn Berckman before? She’s good at this genre, if this novel is a fair sample of her style.

And good at other things, too. Check this out, from the dust jacket flyleaf of The Victorian Album:

Very curious now, I looked for more information regarding Evelyn Berckman, and a very few minutes of internet research took me to this, a cheerfully fulsome review at The Passing Tramp blog, in which Berckman is favourably compared to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

This book was in a batch of odds and ends I’d picked up some years ago when I was keeping my bedridden elderly mother supplied with titles to please her in her book-a-day reading habit. I’m not sure if she got to this one, but if she did I’ll bet she liked it, as she was a Rendell/Vine aficionado, and was always up for a well-written but not taking-itself-too-seriously thriller.

I don’t know if I’ll be actively searching out more of Berckman’s titles, but if I see another in my travels I’ll certainly snap it up with anticipation of another diverting read.

An approving 6/10 for this one. Better than I expected it to be is my final verdict.

 

Read Full Post »

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin ~ 1972. This edition: Fawcett Crest, 1973. Paperback. 191 pages.

Score a great big point for cultural saturation for this one.

Even those of us who haven’t read Ira Levin’s original novel or watched the 1975 (horror) and 2004 (dramatic comedy) movie versions have a darned good idea of what calling someone a “Stepford Wife” is all about: a scornful put-down right up there with “Little-Suzy-Homemaker” and “June Cleaver”, referring to the unemancipated females who are letting down The Sisterhood by really caring if their floors are glossy and their toilets really clean.

The Stepford Wives is a slight novel, despite its broad fame and its description on the back cover of my edition as a “chiller [with a] clincher of such hard-edged horror as to make his Rosemary’s Baby seem a drawing room comedy” – at least according to Mary Ellin Barrett of Cosmopolitan.

I do vaguely remember reading Rosemary’s Baby way back in the 1970s – I had a school friend who was into “horror” novels and she pressed it upon me – but I must say that the experience was underwhelming. And despite the promise of hard-edged horror from that long-ago Cosmo reviewer, I must say that this one is, on a superficial level, much the same.

After my reading of The Stepford Wives, as I shuddered gently at its implications, I mused that perhaps a tandem reading of the book might be a revealing conversation starter with your nearest and dearest.

Your partner’s response might well be worth noting, particularly if you are the wife in the equation. Will your spouse secretly envy the husbands of Stepford their sudden acquisition of sexually compliant, traditionally shapely, sweet-smelling underlings who don’t mess around with time-wasting outside interests? Who, incidentally, make the very best coffee?

Okay, backing up a bit to run ever-so-briefly over the plot, just in case any of my fellow readers have missed the gist of  this tale.

Joanna Eberhart, her husband Walter, and their two young children have just moved to the pleasant suburb of Stepford, and all are glad to be out of the ever-more-dirty-and-dangerous big city.

Joanna, self-proclaimed Women’s Liberationist and semi-professional photographer, admittedly hasn’t been too impressed by her first experiences with her polite but dull hausfrau neighbour ladies, but she hopes to find some like-minded, “liberated” friends in the area. And so she does, a couple of new arrivals like herself. They shake their heads over the boring house-proudness of their Stepford peers, and speculate on why all of the other women are so unambitious, so boringly polite, so compliant to their husbands’ smallest whims. Could it be something in the water? How about in that wonderful coffee? Are the ladies of Stepford being quietly drugged?

Turns out the truth is a mite more sinister.

Disclosure:

There isn’t a happy ending.

I think The Stepford Wives truly deserves its status as a classic of pop culture. It’s certainly representative of its time, and, for all its slightness, it’s a fantastic sleeper of a pro-feminist piece of literature. Even the most loving of the novel’s “enlightened” husbands eventually show their baser natures, much to my dismay. (I had highish hopes for at least a few of them. Nope. Ira Levin doesn’t pull any punches: all the Stepford men are evil.)

Final thoughts:

If you bump into it in your travels, you should read it, if only to clarify the basis for the pop culture “Stepford Wife” references all around us.

On the plus side, it’s a lightning fast read, a couple of hours at the most.

It’s also quite funny. Levin strikes an amusingly satirical note here, alongside his darker imaginings.

This one gets a shiny gold-plated star. Or, quantified in numbers, a rating of 7/10 from me.

Oh! One last thing. You, dear reader, if you make it through this novel, will never feel quite comfortable with a certain Disneyland attraction again…

 

Read Full Post »

Country Chronicle by Gladys Taber ~ 1974. This edition: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1974. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-397-01023-0. 220 pages.

Gladys Taber needs no introduction to many of my fellow readers, but to those of you unfamiliar with her gentle body of work, I’ll merely mention that she was a domestic affirmationist who wrote well-received periodical articles and columns, journals, cookbooks and a few novels, from 1925 to 1980. Her last memoir, Still Cove Journal, was finished by her daughter Connie and published posthumously in 1981.

Country Chronicle falls into the pattern of the best of Gladys Taber’s rural-living journals. Arranged in seasonally progressing sections, in it she examines in some detail the natural world surrounding her 17th Century Connecticut farmhouse, her neighbours and current society, her pets, and her reminiscences of the past. There are, predictably, a few recipes thrown in here and there, most terrifically dated, but some decidedly good sounding.

Gladys Taber was a strong proponent of respect for the domestic arts, and whenever I read her I come away feeling slightly guilty for my own shortcomings in that area, but also encouraged in my own inner belief that a comfortable house and a well-furnished table are well within the capabilities of most of us, and well worth striving for.

Gladys Taber has enough astringency in her opinions to keep things from getting too impossibly sweet. In Country Chronicle we are made well aware of her past griefs and present physical infirmities; she is 74 at the time of the book’s publication, and feeling the effects of age on her body, as well as the loss of beloved people and animals in her life. Very relatable, which no doubt accounts for her broad appeal. Her popularity in her time is completely understandable; a quietly enthusiastic fan base still exists some four decades after her death, and her old home Stillmeadow, still in the family, has recently been the focal point of a successful land conservation initiative.

Happy Sunday, fellow readers. Fall is in the air here, and the smoke from our region’s forest fires is at last lessening as things settle down with the coming of cooler nights and occasional welcome rainfalls. The wild geese are ganging up and running their practice flights up and down our river valley; the wild things are busy preparing for winter; the humans likewise.

Evacuation orders and alerts are being stepped back throughout much of the area, “normal” is once again becoming just that, as we cautiously take stock of what this challenging summer has meant to our region as a whole, and most of all to those personally affected by the loss of homes and livelihoods.

On the news we see reports of other parts of the world as strongly affected in their various ways as we have been here – fire, flood, storm, political upheaval, physical and moral violence in the most pernicious forms. Through all of this, human decency encouragingly frequently prevails.

On that note, I will leave you with a warm nod to this author, for at her best she is thought-provoking and affirmative of the values most of us, rural and urban dwellers alike, would like to live by. Gladys Taber is all about being a good friend and neighbour, giving and receiving help gracefully, surviving sorrows and setbacks, being kind to animals both wild and tame, keeping your surroundings in good order, and in general living lightly on the land and leaving things better off for your presence. Worthy goals, all of them.

Read Full Post »

Please pay no mind to this rather dire 1980s' cover; the content is much better than this would lead one to believe.

Please pay no mind to this rather dire 1980s’ cover; the content is much better than this would lead one to believe.

The Yellow Meads of Asphodel by H.E. Bates ~ 1976. This edition: Penguin, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004620-8. 95 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This slender collection of short stories, published two years after H.E. Bates’ death in 1972, is something of a hodge-podge, no uniting theme present except that they were all written by a master observer of both nature and the human race.

A review snippet from the back cover sums up this writer’s style quite nicely: “All the clotted cream of a sensuous rusticity…” (Scotsman)

Yes, indeed.

Just the briefest of comments on the seven stories in this collection, because you need to encounter H.E. Bates at first hand for purest pleasure.

The Proposal

Professor Plumley is unmasked as the mysterious person leaving lavish offers of fruit on Miss Shuttleworth’s doorstep. Is this merely a way of ridding himself of excess garden produce, or is love about to bloom in two elderly hearts?

The Yellow Meads of Asphodel

Middle-aged siblings living together in the house willed to them by their parents find their staid life turned on end when one of them falls in love.

A Taste of Blood

Dhillon falls unaccountably afoul of a gang of violent bikers.

The Love Letters of Miss Maitland

Repressed Miss Maitland allows her imagination to supply her with a lover, whose reality is too readily accepted by her friends.

The Lap of Luxury

Roger Stiles, on a journey of post-war reminiscence in France, finds himself cut adrift in the summer countryside. The offer of a ride from a presumably widowed Frenchwoman leads to a long dream-time of love in a luxurious country château. How long could it last?

Loss of Pride

Rustic philosopher Uncle Silas relates the downfall of a bully.

The House by the River

Beware the real estate deal too good to be true; it may have some strange strings attached…

Read Full Post »

pandora sylvia fraser 1972Pandora by Sylvia Fraser ~ 1972. This edition: McLelland and Stewart, 1976. New Canadian Library No. 123. Introduction by David Staines.  Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9223-7. 255 pages.

My rating: 8/10

First of all, a comment regarding that high rating, for those of you who are familiar with my frequent habit of discussing vintage “cosy” books.

Pandora received its high marks because it is so intelligent, so stylistically interesting, and so very much of its era – the early 1970s, when stream-of-consciousness writing was having one of its recurrent moments of being all the rage. It is not a typical “pleasure” read in the accepted sense of the word, nor do I believe was it meant to be. Paradoxically, it is frequently (intentionally, darkly) humorous.

A heads-up note that some of the subject matter may be very disturbing to some, involving as it does several instances of adult-to-child sexual abuse, as well as an abundant amount of physical and psychological violence between children, by adults towards children, and, arguably, by children towards adults. Some very dark places are being explored here, which I will address more fully when I get to the bit about the author at the end of this post.

You will have gathered by now that childhood as a state of paradise is not what this novel is about. Though one might argue that it is all about juvenile innocence. And, inevitably, the loss thereof, and the attainment of a different state of being.

July, 1937. Fourth child Pandora Gothic is born into a hot, summer-weary bedroom in a gabled house on Oriental Street, small-town-could-be-one-of-many, Ontario. She has been preceded by five-year-old twins, Adel-Ada, and Baby Victor, who choked to death. Pandora was meant to be a boy.

Pandora’s mother sings hymns as she goes about her ceaseless round of domestic duties. Pandora’s mother smells of powdered milk and dead roses. Pandora’s father is a one-handed butcher, a bitter veteran of the First War. Pandora’s father smells of blood and rage. Pandora’s older sisters don’t think much of her, this cuckoo in the nest, as they see her. And as her parents increasingly see her, as she leaves babyhood behind and her at-odds personality begins to make itself known.

Over in Europe, the Second War thunders ominously on, permeating every aspect of Pandora’s world.

Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.

If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, andd they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.

Pandora puts her hands over her ears. She closes her eyes. She burrows to the heart of what she knows is her problem:

Adel-Ada wont play with me because ... they don’t like me.

They don’t like me because ………… I scream.

Nobody likes me because ………… I scream and hold my breath.

I have to scream because …………… because ...

The answer comes in a rush: I have to scream because nobody likes me!

It is a futile insight, too bitter to sustain. Pandora shoves it back inside her head.

Pandora does this a lot, shoving her thoughts back inside her head, but occasionally she forgets, and her outspokenness brings her into direct conflict with her elders. Her father in particular seems to find her enraging; Pandora inadvertently triggers his sullen temper, and is continually shouted down, occasionally smacked, and at last resort bundled into locked places (the closet, the basement storage room) to consider her misdeeds. Pandora responds to this by developing an even deeper inner life; she also begins to consider her words before they leave her mouth.

In 1942, kindergarten-age Pandora is marched off to school between her sisters, and her world enlarges exponentially. Here are a new set of adults to be figured out, and the politics of schoolroom and, more crucially, schoolyard politics to be learned. Pandora finds that her bluntness and physical bravery can earn her a status and a fearful respect lacking at home; she becomes one of the leaders of her peers, though the hierarchy within the student group is constantly changing, albeit at a predestined level – the outcasts remain so, the leaders swap places, the masses in the middle section sway to and fro in sycophantic chorus. And Pandora is ever hyper-sensitive to the stink of fear – her own, that of fellow “top girls”, that of the outcasts, even that of the teachers who are only ever in varying degrees of conditional control of their volatile charges.

Pandora navigates her childhood with what seems to me to be more than the usual amount of emotional trauma. Both of her grandmothers die; it is a time of displaying the dead in the best parlour, and Pandora doesn’t do well with the “Give Granny a last kiss on the cheek” expectation. She and a friend encounter a man in the park, in their “safest place to play”, who approaches them and exposes himself. An attempted good deed, giving water to the breadman’s horse, results in an invitation to ride along on the wagon, and a persistent sexual assault ending in Pandora being choked with the hissed instruction not to tell, ever. (Pandora doesn’t.)

Playground politics get progressively more brutal, as the children grow both in stature and in increased potentiality of evil: a kitten is strangled, dismembered, dowsed with gasoline and burnt, and Pandora receives its tail in an envelope from one of the boys who resent her refusal to bow to them as natural lords of creation. Various schoolmates are shamed and bullied – heads doused in unflushed toilets, gang-beaten in the back allies, shunned on the playground, fingered as scapegoats in incidents of vandalism and juvenile crime by the perpetrators. Oh, it’s a wicked, wicked world.

Where are the adults? Trudging along in their own various personal ruts, all unaware that their actions are being studied and replicated by the younger generation.

Pandora finds that schoolwork is easy for her; she heads her class in academics; she is a social leader, though she shares that role with several others. The elaborate social dance of childhood continues. Pandora has several “best” friends; they plan and attend parties, go to the movies, roam about utterly unsupervised in summer, explore the mysteries of sexuality and where bavies come from. There is an explicit incident of girlish genital investigation with an older girl, culminating in a full-on neo-lesbian romp. (Don’t tell anyone, Pandora…)

The novel ends at Pandora’s graduation from Grade Two. She’s learnt at last to diplomatically keep her mouth shut on occasion, to judge her words carefully. (She’s always been good at keeping secrets.) Her mother, though still frequently bemused by Pandora’s passionate personality, appears to be making a sincere attempt to figure her out – those high marks in school have caught parental attention and have inspired a grudging respect. A gleam of optimism for Pandora’s future appears; her mother hints that there may be the possibility of a higher education one day, college and travel and a tantalizing something more…

So. Sylvia Fraser.

In a departure from her established career as a journalist, Pandora was Sylvia Fraser’s first fiction, published when she was 37 years old. The novel received favourable reviews; the Saturday Night excerpt cover blurb on my NCL paperback gushes: “A stunner – innovative in its technique, precise to one-thousandth of a gesture in its characterization, and irrefutably humorous.”

Pandora-the-character is said to be something of a childhood self-portrait of Sylvia-the-writer, and the setting apparently comes from life as well. The 1940s-era detail included in the novel is quite remarkable, and the snapshot given of wartime domestic life in Canada is clear and memorable.

What I didn’t know until after I finished the novel and did some further research on the author was that the incidents of sexual abuse in Pandora were inspired by Sylvia’s own recovered memories of apparent incestuous assaults upon her own childish self – from the age of seven years old – by her father. Fraser’s 1989 book My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing details this aspect of her life and her belief that the scenes in Pandora – written before the incest memories surfaced – were manifestations of that repressed memory.

This would indeed account for the overall tone of Pandora, that of a confused, questing spirit continually finding itself at odds with everyone and everything around it. Even the more light-hearted episodes (relatively speaking – there were few truly joyful moments portrayed) have a woefully foreboding atmosphere, and I hasten to stress that I thought this before I was aware of the author’s back story.

I have subsequently come across an excellent review of Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora by Mark Sampson of Free Range Reading. My response was similar to his: Pandora is a troubling though worthwhile read. “Kafkaesque” describes it perfectly. An excerpt from Mark’s review:

Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kafkaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.

Sylvia Fraser has written five more novels, and an array of non-fiction books, on a variety of topics from incest and pedophilia to spirituality and psychic phenomena.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »