Posts Tagged ‘1975 Novel’

Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent (pseudonym of Peter O’Donnell) ~ 1975. This edition: Doubleday, 1975. Alternate title: Kirkby’s Changeling. Hardcover. 310 pages.

I am finally beset by the virus that’s been going around for months here – it’s almost a relief to be ill at last, as everyone else seems to have had it or is in the middle of it, and I was thinking my apparent immunity was a bit too good to be true – and my reading luck is also at rather a low ebb.

I have three finished novels stacked up to share some thoughts on. They are all very different – this one, and The Man From Greek and Roman by James Goldman (intriguing title, no?), and The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes. All of them were quite entertaining in parts, though none attained perfection. With that in mind, let’s see what my foggy brain can find to say. I’ll start with Stranger at Wildings, while its finer points are still fresh in my memory.

From the front flyleaf:

Here is a tale of charm and adventure – set in Europe around the turn of the century – whose colorful action ranges from a touring circus in Hungary to the fox-hunting society of the English countryside to the elegant circles of wealth and fashion in London. It is the story of a spirited young woman of eighteen who has left an unhappy, uncertain past in England and made a new life for herself as a trapeze artist in a small touring circus…But that forgotten past will stumble upon her one day, beside a stream in Hungary, where the circus has pitched its tents for a time. It will come in the form of a mysterious young man – handsome, appealing, yet curiously remote – whose appearance is the beginning of a strange, dangerous intrigue that involves deception, romance, disappearance and, in the end, the revelations of a family’s darkest secrets.

Yes, it’s a gothic romance!

Written – anomaly alert! – by a man. The only man, in fact, to have ever won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, in 1978, for his novel Merlin’s Keep.

Though to be fair, no one at the time except his publisher (and presumably his nearest and dearest) knew that “Madeleine” was actually “Peter”. For some reason I get a lot of quiet amusement from knowing this, and I read this novel with enhanced enjoyment because of it, in particular during the more “girly” bits, where Mr. O’Donnell finds himself forced to describe articles of womanly attire. He does quite well, for a while. I did notice towards the end that he rather lost interest in playing that particular game, merely stolidly stating that a character’s dress was, say, blue, no other details of style or shade or fabric or embellishments given.

The whole scenario is decidedly unlikely, but a good romp it makes, and I liked it a lot until the last chapter or two, when the requisite happy ending was being set up. Yeck. This is where someone like Norah Lofts trumps others in the genre, with her carefree tendency to keep things dark; no happily-ever-afters there. But I digress.

Okay, here it is. A thirteen-year-old, motherless English girl, spoiled and unlikable, finds out upon the death of her supposed father that she is in fact no relation at all – she was a changeling child. She is therefore told that she is to be put into an orphan asylum, as no one wants to continue supporting her.

So she runs away, and joins a circus, where she becomes a talented trapeze artist. (Yes, seriously.)

Fast forward a few years. Our heroine, Chantal, is now eighteen, and has decided that she wants to become a medical doctor, once she has banked enough money from her acrobat’s salary to put herself through medical school. (This is not such an easy feat for a young woman in the late 1800s to pull off, remember.)

In Hungary, where the circus is touring, Chantal befriends a handsome young man who has apparently lost his memory. Their eyes meet, etcetera, but before anything comes of it the young man disappears under suspicious circumstances. Hot on the heels of this drama, Chantal is “discovered” by an English brother and sister couple (but are they?) who inform her of her real heritage, and off she is whisked to England, to a high place in society.

But Chantal soon realizes that someone is out to harm – kill? – her, and lo and behold! – the mysterious man from Hungary reappears, memory apparently repaired…

There is a killer dog attack, lots of acrobatic antics, various horseback athletics (Chantal is a talented equestrienne, of course), a sinister secret society, and a grand finale which I must admit I didn’t see coming, save for the inevitable romantic clinch at the end.

Points in favour include a divertingly fast pace, and a heroine with numerous personality flaws to contrast nicely with her enviable physical accomplishments. Points against are the sincerely silly plot, and the goopy ending.

But all in all a rather decent example of the genre. Let’s give the man (Peter) a round of applause, and a well-deserved 7/10.

I’d made acquaintance with Madeleine-Peter before, and I wrote about it, too. At length.  Here we go.

A bit of an extra from the back dust jacket:

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turtle diary russell hoban 001Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban ~ 1975. This edition: Picador, 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-330-25050-7. 191 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

The only thing better than looking forward to a read with a cozy preconception as to what the story will bring, and being satisfied with your expectation, is to be blanket-tossed up in the air by a book that tightens up and bounces you unexpectedly into a very different direction, leaving you to freewheel for a while, scrambling for a sense of where you’re going, then catching you and returning you, more or less gently, to solid ground. Turtle Diary is that second kind of book.

The plot is easily condensed. Two middle-aged and currently unattached Londoners, William G. and Neaera H., both struggling with a stagnant state of being, visit the Zoo and are, separately, attracted to the sea turtle tank and the stoic inhabitants within. Musing on the cosmic injustice of these far-roaming creatures being confined to a tiny volume of water, William and Neaera each consider the possibility of somehow freeing the turtles back into the sea. As each of them in turn carry on their separate narrations, we see that their thoughts are uncannily similar, both regarding the turtles and other aspects of their solitary existences, and their relationships (or lack thereof) to those around them. Inevitably William and Neaera meet, speak, share their turtle-liberation impulses, and formulate a practical plan to carry it out, helped by the like-minded zookeeper. Can you guess where we’re going from here? Two lonely people, sharing a joint goal, yearning desperately for love…?

Well, abundant blessings to Russell Hoban. He faces up to and jumps the clichés quite nicely, and while his characters do ultimately find themselves in a different and presumably better emotional place, it’s not their ultimate fate to rest in each others’ arms.

There is so much packed into these strange and wonderful book that the whole turtle thing turns out to be merely a unifying theme, a subplot. This is not as much a book about animal liberation as it is about human liberation. Or, as William G. would doubtless remind us, perhaps there isn’t any difference between the two, humans being just another sort of animal, after all. The trick being to find a state of existence where one can satisfy one’s biological and emotional needs, whether one is sea turtle (source of sea turtle soup) or William G. (source of William G. soup) or octopus or oyster-catcher or water beetle or zookeeper or Balkan expatriate…

It’s so strange (and wonderful) that I picked up an old edition of this book completely at random some weeks ago, merely on the strength of the author’s name. And yes, I already knew who Russell Hoban was – what reading parent could not miss the identity of the originator of the adorably contrary Frances? And of course The Mouse and His Child, which is, most emphatically, not a book for small children, or possibly any age of child, despite the repeated references to it as a “children’s classic”. Whoever has designated it as such has perhaps not read the actual book. But I digress.

As I was saying, I picked up Turtle Diary completely serendipitously, only finding out when another blogger mentioned that he too was reading it that it has been recently reissued by New York Review Books, and is currently receiving much popular press as literary readers “rediscover” Hoban-the-writer-of-adult-fiction.

Without further ado, and without wasting my words in attempted repetition of what Guy Savage of the excellent His Futile Preoccupations book blog has already said, I refer you to that review:

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

Guy states that this might well be one of his best books of the year. I know it will be high up on my own list.

And on the strength of Turtle Diary, I will be searching out my copy of The Mouse and His Child, which I acquired when my children were small, thinking that it was a children’s story – it was, after all, shelved in the juvenile section of the bookstore. It was tucked away when an initial reading showed a deep unsuitability for the highly imaginative, nightmare-prone younglings of the household, despite the message of unconditional love yadda yadda yadda. Now that the children in question are in their advanced teen years and decidedly bombproof in their reading habits they might even be interested in exploring Hoban’s adult works for themselves. The dystopian Riddley Walker sounds like something my son in particular might enjoy; must seek that one immediately.

Russell Hoban. If indeed his works are coming in for a time of resurgence, it is because they richly deserve it. Check him out.

Edited July 24, 2013 to add this link to another brilliant review: Seeing the World Through Books – Mary Whipple Reviews Turtle Diary

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