Archive for the ‘Monica Dickens’ Category

Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens ~ 1990. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-012371-7. 220 pages.

Monica Dickens, middlebrow writer extraordinaire, made her name at a very young age with several creatively autobiographical books based on her pre-war and wartime jobs – One Pair of Hands (working as a cook-general) in 1939, and  One Pair of Feet (nursing) in 1942 – and a whole slew of excellent novels, all sharing strong characterizations and allowing Dickens much scope to share the thoughts generated by her keenly contemplative X-ray eye, embellished with her sometimes rather biting sense of humour.

Occasionally Monica Dickens turned her hand to mildly macabre suspense novels, and this one, published just two years before her death at the age of seventy-seven, is really quite disturbing in an insidious way.

Closed at Dusk is an increasingly eerie story of thwarted love and revenge intruding upon a normal, happy, absolutely well-meaning British family, whose main collective sin is of occasional obtuseness to the emotional lives of those around them.

The upper class Taylors own a palatial country residence, surrounded by beautiful gardens. They have worked hard to keep their home in the family and to restore it from the combined ravages of wartime army occupation and the eccentric ways of the late family matriarch, who lived reclusively in one room while the house deteriorated around her.

The estate is known as The Sanctuary, and it is open to paying visitors much of the year, who patronize the tea room, walk through the beautifully landscaped grounds, and enjoy the animal-themed statuary originally collected by the earlier generations of the current family, as they established a Victorian era rural retreat “where all things could be at peace.”

All is indeed well with the Taylors, but things are about to change…

Tessa, adult daughter of the current owners, has some years earlier made an unfortunate marriage, in that her husband has heartlessly divorced his first “bland, beige” first wife to take up with vibrant Tessa. They have a child, and then the fickle Rex is off with yet another woman, divorcing Tessa in her turn.

Tessa copes quite well with her fate as a cast off wife, for her ex-husband is, to put it mildly, an utter jerk, and she’s well rid of him and knows it, but Discarded Wife Number One is still out there, very much not coping well with her destroyed life, and she is plotting a revenge scenario against the woman whom she blames for the destruction of her marriage, and the terrible loss of her own unborn child.

Taking on an invented persona, the meek, bland Marigold transforms herself into the vivacious Jo, and she cleverly slides into a an ever-more-involved position as a trusty staffer at The Sanctuary, gaining the confidence of the family and learning what makes them all tick, in order that her eventual revenge shall hurt the hardest it possibly can.

Oh, yes, and there’s a subplot of supernatural goings-on – perhaps imagined, or maybe not – which adds a decided miasma of foreboding to this well-paced, ever-more-troubling tale.

Creepy, and very well written. Think shades of Joanna Trollope at her family drama best, blended with Shirley Jackson noir.

My rating: 7.5/10.

Read Full Post »

Here’s the second installment in my look back at some of the ups and downs, highs and lows, bests and worsts of my personal 2013 reading year.

Yesterday I picked out 10 books which pleased me. These weren’t necessarily the “best” things I read, but they left me with a sincere sense of pleasure.

Today I think I will highlight 10 books (or maybe one or two more) which surprised me by confounding my preconceived expectations in some way. Most of these choices have already been reviewed on the blog, but there are several which I didn’t get around to, so I’ll see if I can link some more detailed discussions when I get to those.

Without further ado, here is the 2013 Round-Up Part 2, of 10+ Most Unexpected Reads. Still to come, 2013 Round-Up Parts 3 and 4, Most Disappointing and Personal Favourites. 

*****

MOST UNEXPECTED READS 2013

In order of publication.

*****

where the blue begins christopher morley cover 0011. Where the Blue Begins     

by Christopher Morley ~ 1922

Gissing lived alone (except for his Japanese butler) in a little house in the country, in that woodland suburb region called the Canine Estates. He lived comfortably and thoughtfully, as bachelors often do. He came of a respectable family, who had always conducted themselves calmly and without too much argument. They had bequeathed him just enough income to live on cheerfully, without display but without having to do addition and subtraction at the end of the month and then tear up the paper lest Fuji (the butler) should see it.

Here we have a decently prosperous, almost middle-aged bachelor, one Gissing, whose private income is just sufficient to allow him a life of leisure, with a country house staffed by a manservant, and scope for mild entertainment and some local travelling. But comfortable though his life is, Gissing is occasionally disturbed by vague yet compelling yearnings to see and understand his purpose in the world. What’s it all about, and what should we do with it, this thing called “Life”? What’s over the next horizon, “where the blue begins”?

Well, nothing here to raise any eyebrows, and certainly nothing to put this on the Most Unexpected list, except for the twist, which is that this is the world as we know it, but it is peopled entirely with anthropomorphized dogs. They walk on two legs, wear clothes, drive motorcars, dwell in houses, but the canine instinct continually makes itself known. Aromas madden these creatures; they occasionally tear off their clothes and run madly through the countryside, to return apologetically to their dwellings when the mood passes. They snap and snarl when taunted, and the pack instinct is strongly present, as Gissing finds to his discomfort when he falls afoul of the status quo and is hunted by a ravening group of his peers.

It’s beyond weird, this whole conceit, but it works surprisingly well, and Morley is obviously enjoying himself thoroughly the whole way through this very odd book.  Where the Blue Begins was a bestseller in its time, and was produced in numerous editions. And yes, this is the Christopher Morley of The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, and if I was expecting something along those lines when I first picked up Where the Blue Begins, I was soon shaken out of my complacency.

glimpses of the moon edith wharton 0012. The Glimpses of the Moon 

by Edith Wharton ~ 1922

Susy and Nick, bona-fide beautiful people, live by their wits as hangers-on among the idle rich. Susy gets by on her charming personality alone, while Nick is an aspiring writer, but the last thing either wants is a moneyless marriage, so when they find that they have fallen in love with each other, the relationship seems a non-starter from the beginning. Until Susy comes up with a clever plan to seize at least a year of happiness together before they must part to seek wealthier partners.

A playful and frivolous departure for the generally serious Edith Wharton, and one which I mostly enjoyed, especially in the early chapters where Susy dances precariously on the knife blade of dazzling her more dull-witted but well-heeled sponsors into paying for her honeymoon. Susy is the Jazz Age Lily Bart, though her eventual fate is kinder, as befits this much lighter production by an American literary icon.

 

cheerful weather for the wedding julia strachey3. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

by Julia Strachey ~ 1932

An unexpectedly dark, very short, hard-to-analyze novella which got a lot of attention in the blogosphere earlier this year, due to the recent release of a padded-out film version of the story. The humour which many reviewers identified is definitely there, but I found much pathos as well, though it was of the twisted sort, where one is not quite sure if the author is sneering a bit at her readers for being taken in by the obvious and missing the hidden implications. Confusing response? Well, if so, it fits this odd little book perfectly well.

Dolly Thatcham is getting married in a few hours, and upon meeting her in the opening pages of the book we take a deep breath and hold it for the duration. This book is strung out with tension. Something is going to happen. Something more than a mere marriage ceremony, the veiled implication teases us.

It was as if the drawing-room reappeared in the mirror as a familiar room in a dream reappears, ghostly, significant, and wiped free of all signs of humdrum and trivial existence. Two crossed books lying flat, the round top of a table, a carved lizard’s head on a clock, the sofa-top and its arms, shone in the grey light from the sky outside; everything else was in shadow. The transparent ferns that stood massed in the window showed up very brightly and looked fearful. They seemed to have come alive, so to speak. They looked to have just that moment reared up their long backs, arched their jagged and serrated bodies menacingly, twisted and knotted themselves tightly about each other and darted out long forked and ribboning tongues from one to the other; and all as if under some terrible compulsion … they brought to mind travellers’ descriptions of the jungles in the Congo, – of the silent struggles and strangulations that vegetable life there consists in it seems.

To complete the picture, Dolly’s white face, with its thick and heavily curled back lips, above her black speckled wool frock, glimmered palely in front of the ferns, like a phosphorescent orchid blooming alone there in the twilit swamp.

For five or six minutes, the pale and luminous orchid remained stationary, in the centre of the mirror’s dark surface. The strange thing was the way the eyes kept ceaselessly roaming, shifting, ranging, round and round the room. Round and round again … this looked queer – the face so passive and remote seeming, and the eyes so restless.

The light perhaps caught the mirrored eyes at a peculiar angle, and this might have caused them to glitter so uncomfortably, it seemed even so wildly – irresponsibly, – like the glittering eyes of a sick woman who is exhausted, yet feverish.

This is indeed a bride with a back story.

the towers of trebizond 1 rose macaulay4. The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay ~ 1956

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

No doubt many of you are familiar with this quotation of the first line in this iconic and deeply strange fiction. Presented by publishers and numerous reviewers as a light and humorous travel tale, I found that it was no such thing, though there was certainly some humour and more than a little travel involved.

It took me a very long time – weeks – to work my way through The Towers of Trebizond, because I found it exhausting in what it asked of me as a reader to process. But this in no way put me off; it actually intrigued me and made me more and more eager to come to grips with what the author was doing here.

The narrator, Laurie, of ambiguous gender until the very end of the story, is accompanying an aunt and an Anglican priest on a visit to Turkey, with the joint aims of converting Muslims to Christianity (Father Chantry-Pigg), studying the living conditions of the local female populace (Aunt Dot), and writing a travel book (Laurie). Part way through the trip, Father Chantry-Pigg and Aunt Dot disappear, apparently into Soviet Russia, leaving Laurie stranded in more ways than one.

A Billy Graham Crusade and a group of apocalypse-anticipating Seventh-Day Adventists heading for Mount Ararat add an element of farce to the saga, as does Laurie’s acquisition of an ape which Laurie attempts to lead into a more highly evolved human form, at one point attempting to teach it to drive a car, with the expected results.

The internet is crowded with marvelous reviews of this fantastical tale, and I hesitate to choose one for you, so I will leave it up to you to investigate further. Worth reading, but keep your mind open. This is not at all what it at first seems to be.

people who knock on the door patricia highsmith5. People Who Knock on the Door 

by Patricia Highsmith ~ 1983

A tense, noir, almost-thriller; a can’t-look-away, exceedingly uncomfortable depiction of a dysfunctional family and its twisted disintegration after two of its members embrace an arcane strain of Christian fundamentalism. None of the characters are particularly likeable or completely faultless, including the pseudo-hero Arthur, eldest son of the family in question, who is the closest thing to a chief protagonist in this tense tale.

Despite its date of publication, it seems to be set in the 1950s, and has a decidedly vintage feel to it. This is the first Patricia Highsmith book I’ve ever read, though I’ve seen several of the movie adaptations of her work, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and of course the Venetian-set Talented Mr. Ripley, so the dark psychological elements in this were somewhat expected, though the way this one progressed was completely unpredictable to me, hence its inclusion on this list.

dear doctor lily monica dickens 0016. Dear Doctor Lily

by Monica Dickens ~ 1988

This was one of the last novels of the prolific Monica Dickens, who died in 1992 at the age of 77. Her first book, the best-selling and still in print One Pair of Hands, was published in 1939, and it was followed by at least thirty more, some of which are classics of middlebrow fiction. All of her books are compulsively readable, and Dear Doctor Lily is no exception. I couldn’t look away, much as I occasionally wished to. Its frequent bleakness rather disturbed me; the author definitely has the gloves off here in her vivid descriptions of two very different marriages.

Two English girls meet on a flight to America in the early 1960s. Ida is heading to an American G.I.’s family home; she is going to be married, and her expectations are high that her life will be better than it was in England, even if she has a few inner qualms about her prospective spouse and his true devotion to her. Lily is destined to go a very different direction. She is about to meet the man who will become her lover; her far-off future holds a deeply happy marriage, though she has no inkling of that as yet, just as Ida has no foreboding of her own future abuse at the hands of her brutal spouse, and her desperately squalid future.

This book is all about random encounters, and the inconceivable vagaries of the hand of fate. Rather appropriate from a writer in her seventh decade, come to think of it – Monica Dickens paid attention her whole life to what was going on around her, and Dear Doctor Lily showcases the result of such keenly discriminating observation.

And though I’d love to link a proper  review, I couldn’t find much online beyond the sketchiest of references, so you’ll have to take my word for it that this is a must-read for the Monica Dickens enthusiast, but that it’s definitely not a comfort read. Glimmers of hope and bits of personal redemption keep it out of the totally depressing category, and the writing is, as ever, stellar.

after the falls catherine gildiner7. After the Falls

by Catherine Gildiner ~ 2009

This was a grand year for memoirs, and this one was outstanding and highly unexpected in the direction it went. Toronto psychologist Catherine Gildiner looks back at her adolescence in Buffalo, New York in the 1960s, and her subsequent troubled relationship with a volatile poet and civil rights movement protestor. Outspoken and funny and tragic and compulsively readable. A follow-up to the also-bestselling Too Close to the Falls, which you may already be familiar with, and which is now on my own Must-Read list.

february lisa moore 0018. February

by Lisa Moore ~ 2010

This well researched and absolutely heart-rending historical fiction about Newfoundland’s 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster won this year’s annual C.B.C. Radio Canada Reads contest, and, in my opinion, deserves every bit of praise it got.

February is based on a true Canadian tragedy. On Valentine’s night in 1982, out on the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland, the oil drilling rig Ocean Ranger capsized and sank during a violent storm. All eighty-four men on board the rig died in the frigid waters, some apparently within hailing distance of a vessel which was unable to rescue them. The families of the dead learned of the disaster from news accounts on the radio; the oil company made no attempt to notify them. February’s main character Helen O’Mara loses her husband Cal that night. She has three young children and is pregnant with a fourth. Life for all of them becomes indelibly marked by their loss in ways both immediate and not always obvious until many years later.

I generally avoid books which are this desperately emotional, but February surprised me by its enjoyability. Maybe it was the pugnaciously regional voice of the fictional Helen, with its plethora of to-the-point and very funny “Newfie”-isms, or perhaps it was the appealing interviews with the author I was lucky enough to catch on the radio during the Canada Reads debates, but I’m very glad I gave it a chance.

i the suicide's library tim bowling jacket9. In the Suicide’s Library

by Tim Bowling ~ 2010

Is it ever right to steal a book? Tim Bowling, Canadian poet, browsing a university library collection, stumbles upon a copy of poet Wallace Steven’s Ideas of Order, signed on the flyleaf by yet another poet, Weldon Kees, who disappeared mysteriously one day in 1955, with evidence suggesting his suicide by jumping of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Tim Bowling allows his collector’s lust to suggest certain possibilities to him. Would anyone even notice if he “liberated” such a poet’s treasure from its dusty obscurity in the stacks? In the process or worrying this ethical dilemma out, Bowling spins out a book-length ramble about not only Stevens and Kees, but his own personal life.

This book is nothing if not rambling, and it does go on and on and on, and I absolutely hated Bowling’s final decision regarding the book, which I cannot share here, as it is the whole point of working through this thing. It made me grumpy for days, and still offends me to think about it. But I’m glad I sought this literary oddity out, and I’ll be reading it again, and deep down inside I was pleased to have been challenged by my disagreement with certain of Bowling’s opinions. Forgive the cliché, but this one was absolutely thought-provoking.

the sisters brothers patrick dewitt10. The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick deWitt ~ 2011

I was a little bit leery about this one to begin with. I’d heard all the hype, and seen it on the Big!New!Books! displays in the mall chain bookstores, and I looked at it from a distance and was all snooty, ’cause I don’t do Westerns or cowboy books, and this screamed that from twenty feet away. But then I heard an excerpt read out loud on the C.B.C., and the very next week one of my friendly used book dealers gave me a pristine copy as a bonus to my substantial purchase. Obviously it was meant to be.

Two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are employed as hit men in the Gold Rush-era “Old West”. Their quest to end the life of one Hermann Kermit Warm leads to many complications and moral examinations, mostly by narrator Eli. Macabre, cold-blooded and unexpectedly, surrealistically funny. Kudos to the author for the ending; it went a different direction than I’d expected, in a very good way. Loved it. Absolutely brilliant. (But not for the squeamish!)

Here’s a fine review, one of many out there: Tipping My Fedora: The Sisters Brothers 

Bonus Choice # 11

Caitlin Moran Lets It All Hang Out

how to be a woman caitlin moranHow to Be a Woman

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2011

moranthology caitlin moranMoranthology

by Caitlin Moran ~ 2012

Swimming into my awareness early in 2013 was British pop culture critic and memoirist Caitlin Moran. Nothing could have prepared me for her, she’s very much of the “have to experience it for yourself” variety of writer. Mostly I enjoyed my hectic time with Ms. Moran; occasionally she completely freaked me out. She always surprised me, though, both by her vividly expressed opinions, her eager willingness to share the most intimate details of her life, and by the excellent quality of her more serious pieces.

How to Be a Woman ~ Absolutely loved some of it; a few bits appalled me. This writer has no self-edit function! Which makes this high speed, profane, too-much-information rant on the business of being female both deeply engaging and just a bit worrisome to those of us functioning on a less high speed plane of “normal”. Very good, and I enjoyed it. But there are episodes and opinions here and there that triggered the “ick!” response! And she swears. A lot.

Moranthology ~ Caitlin Moran looks back at her childhood and adolescence and skewers her younger self as brutally as she does the pop stars she profiles in this outspoken and slashingly funny collection of articles.

 

*****

Read Full Post »

the winds of heaven monica dickens 001The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens ~ 1955. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00.1917-0. 239 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

Monica Dickens is one of my pet authors; her books, despite their undoubted flaws, reside prominently on the bedroom bookshelves reserved for our favourite re-reads. And when one is so comfortable with a certain author, isn’t it sometimes hard to step back and realize that not everyone shares either their familiarity or enthusiasm?

I was quite surprised at my own passionate feelings of defensiveness regarding Monica Dickens recently when I read this review of The Winds of Heaven by blogger Rachel of Book Snob. I was half way through reading my own copy of the novel, and Rachel’s comments made me step back a bit and look at the story with new eyes. I’d read it several times previously over the years, and I didn’t really change my views on it with this reading, but it was truly interesting to read with a more critical eye, as if experiencing the novel as a “first” Monica Dickens, and to try to identify what exactly pushed Rachel’s buttons all wrong. Great discussion followed that post; worth reading, so please visit if you haven’t already.

So – taking a deep breath, stepping back, and trying to maintain some sort of distance so I’ll be able to give my own picture of the book in question.

First off, I must say that The Winds of Heaven isn’t, in my opinion, one of this author’s stronger books. Though well up to standard as far as the writing goes, there are others much, much better handled, both in plot and execution. The recent re-issue of this title by Persephone Books leaves me jut a bit bemused; there are others in this writer’s canon which are so much more worthy of that great honour. If this is your first exposure to Monica Dickens, it might well also be your last, and that would be an immense shame, as she has some rather good stories to tell.

I can only assume that Persephone chose this book because of its attention to women’s roles in the mid 20th century. Set in England in the post war years (The Winds of Heaven is set in 1951 and 1952, and was published in 1955), the characters are broadly representative of their time.

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.

To Louise Bickford, on this late April day, the wind that jostled through the London streets seemed a bitter personal enemy, turning to meet her no matter which way she turned, beating against her small figure in the open stretches, and calling in reserve cohorts to attack her afresh at every corner.

She had intended to walk to the Park and look at the spring flowers, but she was soon so tired of fighting the wind’s fiendish determination to pluck her clothes and hair awry that she turned into a teashop to resettle her hair and recover her breath, until it was time to meet Miriam and the children at Marble Arch.

Miriam was Louise’s eldest daughter. She had borne three daughters, to her surprise, for her husband had set his heart on a son, and Louise was in the habit of giving him everything he asked for. That she failed to give him a boy, with a long conceited nose like his own to look down on the world, had not helped to raise his opinion of his wife’s usefulness to society…

Louis, widowed for just over a year,  is on the cusp of sixty. Her late husband, the supercilious Dudley, has died unexpectedly after a short illness, leaving his financial affairs in a state of great turmoil. Instead of a sedate widowhood financed by a respectable income, Louise is startled to hear that she is, in fact, penniless. Her one resource is a small income from her parents’ estate, barely enough to keep her clothed and fed. Her home and possessions must be sold to repay Dudley’s many debts; Louise has become a bemused and helpless vagabond, thrown out into a world she has been increasingly insulated from during the long years of her difficult marriage.

Louise’s three daughters have stepped in to take on their mother in turn, a situation which all are unprepared for.

Miriam, married to an upwardly mobile barrister, is strongly focussed on the requirements of keeping up a suitable home, entertaining and being entertained by her husband’s business associates, and ensuring her three children are moving ahead in their school and social circles. The most financially prosperous of Louise’s children, it has fallen to Miriam to take on a major part of the responsibility of her mother’s care. Both Louise and Miriam are having a difficult time reconciling themselves to their new relationship. Louise would love to be a fond grandmother figure to Miriam’s three children, but this never quite works out as hoped for. Her closest relationship within the household is to Miriam’s eldest child, Ellen, a dreamy and ineffectual misfit in a household of high achievers. Louise and Ellen are kindred spirits, and Louise’s gentle defense of Ellen serves mostly to irritate, as Miriam sees this as unwarranted interference and an insidious criticism of her mothering skills.

Louise’s second daughter, Eva, an aspiring actress with a hectic personal life, maintains a small flat in London, and good-naturedly tucks her mother into her tiny spare room when it is her turn to host her mother, but her bohemian lifestyle is so at odds with Louise’s conventional nature that the two are never really comfortable together. Eva’s personal affairs are also made more difficult by the presence of her mother in her flat, especially now that she has fallen deeply in love with a married man, and faces her mother’s unspoken but very obvious horror at the situation her daughter has placed herself in.

Louise’s youngest daughter, Anne, has married a struggling market gardener and smallholder. Louise and her practical and kind-natured son-in-law get along well, and Frank has no objection to hosting his wife’s mother. Louise is even becoming rather handy with minor chores about the farm, and she and Frank work well together, with Louise showing increasing competence in practical things under Frank’s relaxed tutelage. Anne herself is the sore point here. Lazy by nature and downright slovenly about the house, Anne finds herself irritated by her mother’s attempts at housecleaning and cooking; those very small efforts at “helping out” seem to Anne to be a personal condemnation of her chosen lifestyle.

So Louise shuttles from daughter to daughter, with a brief respite as a winter resident – at extremely reduced rates –  at an old school friend’s seaside hotel. She increasingly desperately muses over what she should be doing to try to find some sort of solution to her poverty and homelessness. Never expecting to have to support herself, and ineffectual and self-effacing by nature, any initiative she once might have had has been quenched by the late Dudley’s continual verbal criticism. Though Louise has never been physically injured, she is as much a victim of abuse as any battered wife; the way out of her dilemma is lost to her, though well meaning friends try to pep her up and encourage her to find some occupation which might bring in enough income to enable her to maintain some semblance of an independent life.

Then, in a random meeting in a restaurant, Louise becomes friendly with a most unlikely character, department store bed salesman-slash-author of sex-and-murder pulp fiction, Gordon Disher. Gordon is hugely overweight, a severe diabetic who must be extremely careful of what he eats. He’s the never-married middle-aged son of a now-deceased, over-controlling mother, and he is a deeply likeable character, being soft-spoken, kind and deeply compassionate. Louise inspires affection and the longing to protect in Gordon, and their growing relationship winds through the book, increasing in importance until the startling  – but not surprising, given the increasingly melodramatic tone of this minor saga – conclusion.

The Winds of Heaven is “typical” Monica Dickens in that the characters are presented with all flaws fully intact. This is an author who sees every wrinkle, bump and character flaw, and doesn’t hesitate to share them with us. She is adept at showing us that those flaws don’t necessarily completely define her characters, and she generally shows us the positive aspects of each personality as well. She creates her characters, sets them on the stage to play out their various stories, and lets her readers make of everything as they will. I like “not liking” various of her players, and I like the grace that their creator gives by dropping hints of their deeper motivations, and their complex inner lives. Monica Dickens is occasionally sentimental, but only momentarily; her default tone is wryly observant, and her observations are frequently very amusing, in an “Oh my gosh, she’s right, that could be me!” or, “I know that person!” sort of way.

The book ends on a highly ambiguous note. Louise is about to change her life, and future happiness is a strong possibility, but there is a terrible price to pay.

One of my major issues with this novel is the rushed and superficial handling of the ending; after providing such micro-detail throughout, the sketchy handling of final events is something of a let-down, as if the author was really just ready to be done with the story, already.

I don’t personally feel that the author had any statements to make with this tale, much as it could be read as a critique of the treatment of the elderly (though Louise, at a hale and hearty sixty, isn’t really elderly, in the way that we interpret the term today). Every character is presented sympathetically in that we get to see all the facets of their personalities. We may not like how they behave, but we understand why they are like they are.

Yes, Louise’s daughters are selfish, but their creator does not condemn them for it. Louise is just as selfish in her own way, as is Gordon Disher. Everyone has something that they want, some vision that they’re chasing, which affects their relationships with those they are intimate with. It’s plain old human nature, and I appreciate Monica Dickens’ way of presenting each situation with glimpses of motivation and reasoning, and also those moments of reconciliation and affection which are so reflective of real life.

And this is why I love Monica Dickens. She is fully aware of the contradictory aspects of human nature, and forces them upon us in a way that is impossible to dismiss, all the while telling a diverting story. The Winds of Heaven, while not in her top rank, is full of good writing.

And that is all I have to say, at least for now.

I’m hoping to review more of this author’s work, but I find it is rather difficult to step back enough from someone I’ve read and re-read so much and really talk about the book in question while trying to remember that perhaps everyone else reading is not so familiar with the author’s canon. I read The Winds of Heaven quite a way along in my roster of Dickens’ titles; my response to the novel was definitely informed by that circumstance. If it was my first book by her, I very well might never have gone on.

Come to think of it, I’m not quite sure which was my first book by her. That’s sadly lost in the foggy mists of time. I think it was One Pair of Feet; I do remember picking that one up, in a vintage Penguin version, from a used book store in Calgary sometime in the 1980s, and not being quite sure what to expect. Obviously whatever it was that appealed still does!

Read Full Post »

one pair of feet monica dickens 001One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens ~ 1942. This edition: Penguin, 1964. Paperback. 221 pages.

My rating: 10/10.

One had got to be something; that was obvious. But what? It seemed that women, after having been surplus for twenty years, were suddenly wanted in a hundred different places at once. You couldn’t open a newspaper without being told that you were wanted in the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force; factory wheels would stop turning unless you rushed into overalls once; the A.F.S. could quench no fires without you, every hoarding beckoned you and even Marble Arch badgered you about A.R.P.

The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming. Men’s jobs were open to women and trousers were selling like hotcakes in Kensington High Street.

I could not make up my mind what to be. A lot of fanatics rushed into the most uncongenial jobs they could find, stimulated by a glow of self-sacrifice that lasted until the novelty wore off or the cold weather set in, but it seemed to me that, provided it was useful, it was no less patriotic to do something enjoyable. At first sight, the choice seemed so enormous that the trouble was to decide what not to be, but a closer inspection revealed so many snags that in the end the trouble was to find something to which I had a hope of sticking.

The Services? I didn’t think my hips would stand the cut of the skirt and I wasn’t too sure about my legs in wool stockings. Besides, I’d never been much good at drilling and all that. My school reports used to say: ‘Not amenable to discipline; too fond of organizing,’ which was only a kind way of saying: ‘Bossy.’ I might have been a success as a general but not as a private.

The A.F.S.? I did try that for a while, but at the beginning of the war there was not much doing and I got discouraged with sitting all day in the back room of a police station knitting and eating sticky buns with six assorted women and a man with a wooden leg. At the end of the week, we all knew each other’s life histories, including that of the woodenleg’s uncle, who lived at Selsey and had to be careful of his diet. Messenger Dickens had once been down to Roehampton to fetch the Commandant’s handbag and a small tube of soda-mints from the shelf in her bathroom.

A bus conductress? … The W.V.S.? … I worked in a canteen for a while, but had to leave after a terrible row with Mrs Templeton-Douglas, who could never subtract one-and-ninepence from half-a-crown. I sold some of her jam tarts for a penny instead of twopence, thinking they were the throw-outs we had bought at the back door of the A.B.C.

The Land Army? One saw oneself picking apples in a shady hat, or silhouetted against the skyline with a couple of plough horses, but a second look showed one tugging mangel-wurzels out of the frozen ground at five o’clock on a bitter February morning.

Ministries and Bureaux? Apart from the question of my hips again (sitting is so spreading), they didn’t seem to want me. Perhaps it was because I can only type with three fingers and it always keeps coming red.

The Censor’s Office I knew was in Liverpool, and I’d been there once.

Nursing? The idea had always attracted me, even in peace-time, but I suppose every girl goes through that. It’s one of those adolescent phases, like wanting to be a nun. It was reading Farewell to Arms, I think, that finally decided me, though what sort of hospital allowed such goings on, I can’t imagine. However, that was the last war…

So nursing it is, and Monica Dickens edgily and wittily documents the year she spent as a probationer at Queen Adelaide Hospital, and life on and off the wards, and the personalities she rubbed up against.

It is terribly difficult, I find, to write critically about an author whom one has read so often and with so much enjoyment, as I have read Monica Dickens. I will merely say that this book more than lives up to the first few pages excerpted above, and that it does not disappoint.

The author’s voice is two-thirds world-wearily cynical – as only a twenty-something writer can be! – and one-third completely sincere; “readable” is a mild recommendation, but very apt. Many of her sharper observations feel initially rather cruel, but Dickens is as hard on herself as on anyone, and often her most maligned characters are revealed to have redemptive qualities which the author displays with as much clarity as their failings.

Highly recommended.

Caveat lector: Several era-correct racial slurs in this one which may bring the modern reader up short. One character’s nickname is N_____, due to his curly hair, and several times the same term is used descriptively. There appears to be no intention to offend; I believe the usages here were completely accepted at the time of writing. I only mention them because it is a sensitive point with some modern readers.

Read Full Post »