Archive for the ‘Sylvia Murphy’ Category

Candy’s Children by Sylvia Murphy ~ 2007. This edition: S.A. Greenland, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-9550512-1-0. Softcover. 316 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Possibly generous, but I liked it on several different levels, and thought its flaws were mostly editorial. It feels rather like a next-to-last draft, still very raw and not quite completely tweaked and perfected, but overall reasonably well done.

*****

Don’t judge a book by its cover. This is a brutal story and this is an ironic cover; the two little girls are symbolic of the superficial sweetness which hides all sorts of dark emotions and human wickedness.

This book made me uncomfortable on a lot of different levels, but I read through regardless; Sylvia Murphy is a natural storyteller, and despite the flaws in this ambitious book (flaws which I feel could have easily been fixed by an interested editor) it held me to the very end, and surprised me often enough that I sat up and paid attention. Murphy does predictable with a twist than can leave you  shocked and appalled but still engaged; though I figuratively turned my eyes away a few times I readily turned them back.

Young Candice Hargreaves has grown up in pre-WW II Palestine, child of British expatriates. While the family is materially well-off, due to her father’s fruit importation business, and life is in the main easy and pleasant, there is a dark cloud forming over their fragile world. The political atmosphere was charged and ready to explode as the pro-Zionist movement which was eventually to see the annexation of Palestinian territory for the creation of Israel gained power. The British civil government of the region was increasingly challenged by grassroots Palestinian protest groups; open violence is a hairbreadth away.

The Hargreaves family, though outwardly normal enough, is deeply dysfunctional on an emotional level. Candice’s youthful troubles find no sympathy from her distant parents; as she reaches adolescence she turns more and more for comfort to her Palestinian nurse Leila, and, inevitably, to Leila’s handsome teenage son, Naseem, who works as the family’s houseboy. Candice and Naseem become infatuated with each other with predictable results; Candice’s passionate assertion that she wants to marry Naseem and settle down in the countryside to raise his babies engenders an unexpectedly violent response.

Candice – Candy – is very much a victim of circumstance for the rest of her life, but she refuses to acknowledge defeat; she’s a survivor. Her life turns and twists and ends up in unlikely places, but I found I readily suspended my disbelief and became fully engaged in seeing where this troubled heroine would end up next.

Not a masterpiece, but definitely a diverting read. I wouldn’t call it “pleasant” – graphic depictions of violence and sex (including rape) keep this from being a complacent read – but the actions fit the times and their inclusion took this tale to the next level. An interesting, seldom used setting. Boundary-pushing topics, including emotional and physical abuse of children and incest (though the incest is not at all what you’d expect, and is delicately handled.) I often found the characters a bit awkward and over-the-top; a good editor could have helped with that. We are “told” rather than “shown” a lot of the time; the novel’s best passages are those in which the author lets events flow without telling us what we should be thinking about them. The plot has enough twists to keep it from being totally predictable; I appreciated the boldness of the author in taking her heroine to the extremes that she did.

This is now the third book I’ve read by this author, the others being The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry (reviewed earlier), and The Life and Times of Barly Beach, and I still hold her in high regard. Her voice is individual, wry, and often savagely funny. She has a lot to say, and I quite enjoy her perspective. I think that with a little backing from her early publishers she could easily have become a bestseller; she seems to have just barely missed a few of the final steps which would take her there, which is a shame, as she has an individual, quirky voice which appeals on numerous levels.

Here is the novel summary from the author’s website, sylviamurphy.co.uk/candys-children :

A wealthy Palestinian businessman, a middle-aged rock star, an Australian university lecturer, a nun, and an English aristocrat – why are these five ill-assorted people meeting up in a stately home in Yorkshire?

They are the children of Candy Price, one time film star and recently dowager Countess of Penmore. She has been murdered by an assassin’s bomb on a mysterious visit to Tel Aviv and they are gathering for her funeral  – an event that will change all their lives one way or another.  For they all have personal issues to resolve as a result of their mother’s colourful and defiant life. This has stretched from the partition of Palestine, through World War II in England and a miserable marriage to a fighter pilot, to being married to a Hollywood film star in the sixties, to having an affair with the heir to the Penmore title.

The story is told through action before, during and after the funeral. The five offspring have never all been gathered together before, as the Countess was prone to lose custody battles which led to her children being brought up by their different fathers. As we learn more about their disparate lives, it becomes apparent that each of the children has a different perception of their mother as a result of their upbringing.

And here is the author’s note:

Why did I write Candy’s Children?

Candy’s Children is a story that has haunted me for years, ever since, as a growing child, I listened to stories told by my grandparents, my mother and her sister, about events in Palestine before World War II. It was only when I was a grown woman that I realised how closely those events might have affected my life, and saw a way to write the story that was being related to me. This story is based on a true one about a British family of fruit importers who, by chance, had left for their annual leave in England just as the early months of the war began to affect the expatriate communities of the Middle East. These expatriate Europeans lived a comfortable life, either engaged in commerce or in the armed forces, and had very little idea of what was to come with the onset of the World War, and the implementation of the post-1918 agreement to turn Palestine into Israel. It became dangerous to go to parties, or to spend too much time at the lido – the part of the shore they made their own by anchoring two swimming rafts off the beach and installing a well-stocked bar on the landward side. How do I know? I have photographs and cine films of myself and about a dozen other suntanned toddlers laughing in the shallows, watched over by mothers and nurses. It was all fun and laughter until the time came when their cars were wrecked in riots (more photographs); British policemen were kidnapped and flayed alive; Palestinians who associated with Jewish people found their property looted.

Here my imagination takes over. In the midst of this chaos a young British girl, Candice Hargreaves, falls in love and becomes embroiled in events she doesn’t understand. The result is a still-born child, then a horrific war-time sea voyage to Liverpool, arriving in a country where nobody cares about her, or knows who she is. Abandoned by her awful family she learns to make her own way in a world that offers little in the way of comfort or security.

The next part of the story follows Candy through the years of World War II. The events are still picked out of the memories and stories that were told to me years later – sheltering from bombs under the table in Reading Station waiting room, life in the WAAF, a diet of potatoes, sharing lipsticks and nylons, wrecking a parked bomber with a carelessly driven lorry – it’s all true. And the tragedy of how the services dealt with the “welfare” of the girls who became pregnant by pilots who never came back.

Also true is the post-war period when Candy sets about making a fatherless family unit work, only to have it destroyed by the return of the father of her wartime child. There really was a job in a film studio, with all the attendant glamour and excitement, leading to a divorce and a new marriage and a life in Hollywood – okay, I made a lot of that part up, but we did know the film stars and directors personally – I still have their autographed photographs.

I didn’t have to make up London in the sixties, rock bands and music festivals, new styles of clothes, or the increasing muddle and terror in the Middle East that drove refugees like young Naseem Fahy to England. I did make up the identity of a young viscount who fell in love with a film star, but not the type – London was full of them as well – well-meaning, well-educated, dazzled, led astray…

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The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry by Sylvia Murphy ~ 1983This edition: Black Swan, 1984.  Softcover. ISBN: 0-552-99094-9. 174 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

I grabbed this book on a whim during a Sally Ann sweep over a year ago. I was attracted by the intriguing cover, and when I opened the book to the middle for my standard never-heard-of-this-author-before-should-I-gamble-on-this book-30-second-random-excerpt-test it passed quite nicely.

Not quite sure why it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it. The cover blurb might be the reason – a quote from Susan Hill  (which vaguely rings a bell – dark short stories? – or ???)  promises “…no difficulty in laughing out loud….a new, original comic writer…tremendous fun”. I dislike being told I’m going to laugh, and in inner protest I then tend not to. ( “Take that, effusive cover copy writer!” This goes double, no, TRIPLE, for video cover blurbs. Especially foreign films. Never trust the blurb. Just saying.)

Well, shame on me. Picked it up last night, was immediately pulled into Sally Fry’s complicated little world, stayed up way too late reading it, and got up way too early to finish it.

Verdict – very nice indeed. This one’s a keeper. (Though I didn’t laugh out loud. Continual appreciative smiling better describes my response. Maybe I would have laughed out loud – occasional passages are very wryly funny – but I was reading in bed next to my slumbering spouse so I tempered my behaviour accordingly.)

So – how to describe Sally Fry?

Still smiling as I try to condense the essence of this little gem of a story. In brief – here’s the scene. Sally Fry, single mother, behavioural therapist and college lecturer, is working on her PhD thesis. Hoping for a few quiet months of seclusion in her mother’s rented Cornwall cottage, her plans go quickly awry. Her troubled teenage son Sebastian disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note; a sister’s sudden operation means the arrival of Sally’s rather  sweet though boisterous young niece and nephew; another sister shows up on the cottage doorstep on the run from the implosion of her marriage with a Swedish filmmaker, who himself appears shortly thereafter and proceeds to spend his time alternately spying on the household through field glasses and enjoying the generous favours of Sally’s mother’s neighbour’s wife.

The thesis does not progress. What does get done is Sally’s own quirky autobiography, written in passages triggered by alphabetical dictionary-style entries; a form of therapeutic self-expression Sally herself developed and then had scooped by her lover-at-the-time to further his own career. Oh yes, Sally has a back story, and more than a bit of baggage!

If I had the inclination (and, more to the point, the time) I could type in a few of the entries here, but as they really must be read as part of the narrative flow I’ve decided that would be pointless. (Plus the time thing.) So you need to take this on faith. Not a particularly warm and fuzzy book – Sally’s voice is too matter-of-fact and cynical for that – but it made me very, very happy. Good stuff.

I Googled Sylvia Murphy this morning, and  – oh joy! – after this first novel (Sally Fry) she has a nice little collection of subsequent titles which I shall be searching down, though most appear to be out of print. I found Murphy’s personal blog, and the last postings are from 2010; she talks about the difficulties of getting published in the increasingly competitive world of mainstream books as publishers concentrate on potential mega-bestsellers versus a broader catalogue of titles. Though her first works were released by Houghton-Mifflin, it appears that she was dropped at some point; her later works are self-published and she comments that she is now looking at print-on-demand as well. Her bibliography includes several other contemporary novels, memoirs of restoring and ocean-sailing a 1930’s wooden ketch, Nyala, with her late husband, several “cat” tales, and two non-fiction works on coping with death and grieving; in her other life Sylvia Murphy is an administrator in a bereavement counselling service.

More on Sylvia Murphy in the future, I sincerely hope. She’s on my quest list as of right now. I would like to start with her 2008 novel, Candy’s Children.  The description of the plot  is promising: an elderly Palestinian-born Englishwoman dies in a terrorist bombing during a mysterious visit to Tel Aviv; at her funeral five of her children assemble. The catch is that none of them know that they have siblings. I’ll bite; after Sally Fry I have high hopes for Sylvia Murphy; I look forward to spending some more time in her literary company.

Sylvia Murphy. Here she is: http://www.sylviamurphy.co.uk/

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