Posts Tagged ‘The Mandelbaum Gate’

the mandelbaum gate muriel spark 001The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark ~ 1965. This edition: Penguin, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-2745-9. 304 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, now, this one started out rather slowly but became increasingly enjoyable as I sorted out the many story strands the author tossed out and put names to characters and figured out how everyone knew everyone else and what the significance of all of the confusing references were. But it was toughish going for the first third or so. I’m glad I persevered – I almost didn’t.

For a long time I was afraid this was going to turn out to be one of those dismal and fatal tragedies, hearts all broken and dismal suicides and arbitrary deaths-by-misadventure – well, check out the sad face on the cover of my Penguin! – but the author graciously pulled a quickie on me there, resolving everything mildly and without bloodshed, except for one background character who perishes awfully far from the scene of the novel, and who we rather think deserves her nasty fate from what we’ve heard of her.

I liked this book. A lot. Which surprised me, because my expectations were low, after reading a number of dismissive comments regarding its place in the Muriel Spark canon on book blogs which are generally highly reliable indicators of “good” and “bad”.  Which just goes to show that one should remember that taste in books remains a nebulously personal thing.

I must be off and away again this morning, but I wanted to post something about this book and move on – my stack of “want to write abouts” is intimidatingly tall and I hesitate to add yet another. Drawing something of a blank on how best to frame this review, so I am going to refer you over to this excellent précis at Vulpes Libris, where Sharon Rob concisely identifies all of the important bits of this nicely complex novel.

A tiny excerpt here:

Protagonist Barbara is in her thirties, a Catholic convert from Judaism, (whose) status as a woman and a Jewish-Catholic one at that is one way in which Spark takes the thriller genre in hand and gives it a good shake. Barbara is gutsy, bloody-minded and heedless of other people’s opinions, but also committed to her own strong moral code. She is closer to the ideal of the intrepid hero than Freddie Hamilton, the novel’s central male protagonist…a fifty-something diplomat (who) in some ways is more of an archetypal female character than Barbara …who is bound by nothing she didn’t choose…

Barbara has decided, against all advice, to cross over from the Israeli-held side of Jerusalem to the Jordanian side through the titular Mandelbaum Gate, the “Checkpoint Charlie” of its place and time, in order to continue on a personal religious pilgrimage of the Holy Land. The fact that her fiancé, an archeologist working on the Dead Sea Scrolls dig in Jordan, is also “across the line” may or may not be a factor in her determination to put herself at serious risk (as a “person with Jewish blood”) and venture into forbidden territory.

Throw in Freddie’s well-intentioned attempts to save Barbara from herself, a Jordanian family of “fixers”, a couple of turncoat British spies, nuns, disguises, a scarlet fever epidemic, varied sexual liasions, the Catholic Church’s policy on valid marriages for its members, the sudden appearance of Barbara’s ex-roommate and ex-boss Ricky-the-scary-English-girls’-school-headmistress hot on Barbara’s trail, and – with chilling reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust just past – the Eichmann trial (which Barbara attends as a spectator for a sobering afternoon), and you have a glorious muddle which eventually settles out into separate-though-interrelated strata and against all odds works.

Perhaps not a “typical Spark”, but as I haven’t read enough of her work to have a really good handle on what that even is – I have previously read with enjoyment The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, though I failed to get more than a few pages in with Robinson – it struck me as quite good enough to make me keen to read some more of her novels and fill in the Muriel Spark-shaped gaps in this region of my reading history.

Read Full Post »