A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

“But these backwaters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion” ― Edith Wharton

I’d never heard of this book, or the author, before I was asked to review it. In fact, I will confess to having thought it was a modern novel – as so many I am requested to review are. So I was surprised, but also not, having read the novel, to discover it was written in the 1970s. I was taken by the language and setting, and thought the portrayal of the time was done very well, but I also thought that is had a slightly modern feel to it. This has led me to conclude that Dodie Smith was somewhat ahead of her contemporaries in her writing style.

A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

‘This is going to be a long five minutes’ walk,’ said June.

May thought this possible as there was still no sign of any house, but she continued to find things to praise: the overgrown hedges, the tall, still-dripping trees, the brilliant green of the grassy verges, the freshness of the air. And after several more bends in the lane they saw a white wooden gate standing open. Once through this they looked across a large, circular lawn surrounded by a gravel drive. And now at last they were face to face with the house.

‘Much too large,’ said June.

51QWhoqlqpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_May and June are devoted sisters, married to equally-devoted brothers, George and Robert, and even after more than two decades of marriage the four still thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. So when May and her highly-successful husband commit to a five-year lease on a huge, decaying manor house out in the country it seems only natural that they should persuade June and Robert to accept, rent free, a cottage within the grounds.

The two families leave London and, once joined by two not-quite-stereotypical grandparents, and blessed by regular visits from their respective children, begin to thoroughly enjoy their new experiences. Any initial qualms about leaving the city are lost in blissful hours spent wandering through the lilac groves, listening to the birdsong of the resident nightingale, absorbing the country air and indulging in May’s excellent cooking. The only thing that could possibly distress this perfect equilibrium is the compulsory visit of dreaded Aunt Mildred aka ‘Mildew’. Eccentric, annoying and thoroughly too young for her age, Mildred delights in secret dramas, regardless of their truth, or the harm that they may cause.

First and foremost I was absolutely delighted at Dodie Smith’s portrayal of country living. There are few things I love more than day-dreaming of a blissful, quiet life somewhere remote, with only the smell of flowers, birdsong, and the thought of bare-footed, early morning strolls through dew-soaked grass to trouble me. Even though Smith’s portrayal comes through the eyes of a somewhat dysfunctional family unit it still felt to me like a kind of absolute heaven, although perhaps a less than traditional view of heaven . I was so taken by the setting, from the second May and June arrived at the manor house, on a day in which the house and ground were engulfed by a stereotypical English downpour. The rain could not put me off, there was a magic in the dripping of the tree-lined driveway, and the impression of the foreboding, unloved Dower house, standing cold and resolute against the elements, and when the washed-out introduction gave way to pure, unadulterated spring bliss I was smitten. The whole book is brimming with lilac groves, quaint woodlands, blossoms, sundials and mounds and mounds of asparagus and strawberries – I loved every single second of it.

This is a book where characters are really central to the plot, I know characters are important in any story, but here it is the development of the characters that drive the story forward. Smith clearly had a talent for creating quirky, yet believable characters. Each and every character that passes through the estate has some kind of secret, inner passion or frustration. From the sensual Corinna, who is well and truly tired of waiting for saintly Hugh to make a move on her, to the quietly frustrated Robert, who, try as he might, cannot get his next novel on paper. Mildred inspires the release of these frustrations, allowing characters true desires to take form, while undoubtedly an expertly crafter character in her own right, her primary role is to serve as a catalyst for development in others.

In this way the story is very much in the moment, and in the experience, of two families shared existence. The day-to-day happenings in the Dower house are all at once endearing, humorous, envy-inducing, and on the whole utterly ridiculous. Think about it, could you really imagine your parents moving in with your aunt and uncle? Or yourself moving in with your sister/brother and their significant other? Regardless of how close knit a family you come from the situation is really rather odd. The book reads like an extended summer holiday – beautiful in its own way but very much temporary. I get the impression that, in the end, both families might actually quite like to return home.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Families, and would be interested to look up Smith’s other works in the future. I found the book to be a perfect, relaxing afternoon read – it left me feeling pleasantly fulfilled, and without the emotional torture than comes from a horrific book hangover. That said, if you like a bit more substance to your books, there is definitely potential to delve a little further into the hidden meanings behind characters’ actions. On the whole, would recommend, whether as a casual afternoon read or a more in depth book club selection.

I received a free copy of A Tale of Two Families from Hesperus Press in exchange for an honest review.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“A clockwork heart can’t replace the real thing.” ― Dru Pagliassotti

I received this book in my August Prudence and the Crow box, the book selection was a fantastic bit of luck, as I’d been really craving classic children’s literature – between you and me I’m becoming more and more convinced that Prudence and the Crow are able to read my mind. From the a quick look at the front cover and the name alone – I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, right? – I was expecting story about a mouse that fell in love with a windup mouseling. I’m sure you get the idea, something similar to Pinocchio, but English – so, perhaps with afternoons spent playing in dolls’ houses pretending to drink tea. I could not have been more mistaken, but, far from being disappointed, I absolutely loved it.

The Mouse and His Child – Russell Hoban

“Where are we?” the mouse child asked his father. His voice was tiny in the stillness of the night.
“I don’t know” the father replied.
What are we, Papa?”
“I don’t know. We must wait and see.” 

the-mouse-and-his-childOn a cold winter’s evening a tin father and son emerge from a box to stand on display in a toy shop window. Outside the cold wind blows and tramp passes by, momentarily taken by the sight of the toys. Brand new, and confused, the mouse and his child struggle to comprehend what it means to be windup toys and the thought of the life that lays before them makes the poor child cry.

It is not long before they are swept away, bought by a family, destined for a life spent dancing beneath the Christmas tree – the life of a windup. It is a simple life, spent quietly fulfilling their duties; until they break the ancient clock-work rules and must face the consequences.

Discarded in the snow the mouse and his child begin a wholly different journey than the one written for them. They are rescued, repaired by a tramp, and chased by a terrible force that would see all windup toys turned to slaves. Through all that they endure the mouse and the child wish for only one thing, a place to call their own – a magnificent house, a mother, and a sister.

I wish I could say that I had read this book as a child. This is definitely a tale that will take on an entirely different meaning, and gain resonance as a person grows older. I spoke about the book with a colleague when I had just started reading it, and he said that he loved it as a child, but upon revisiting it as an adult realised, quite simply ‘wow, this is really deep stuff’. I could try and say it more eloquently, but that is the bare bones of it. The Mouse and his Child is an incredible tale of quest and determination for children, and when viewed with an adult’s mind it is absolutely brimming with philosophical thoughts, lessons, analogies, and big, gaping questions about life.

“All roads, whether long or short, are hard,” said Frog. “Come, you have begun your journey, and all else necessarily follows from that act. Be of good cheer. The sun is bright. The sky is blue. The world lies before you.” 

The humanity of Hoban’s characters is truly incredible. The authors has taken windup toys and elevated them to the next level. Each toy, however minor their role in the tale, has its own unique drive and personality: the once-proud elephant, now plushless, and with the missing ear and eye patch; the tin seal, long separated from her colourful ball; the sweet child, forever asking questions, always looking, and understanding; and even the donkey – the poor, poor, donkey – who once dared to complain. These creatures may be made of clockwork, but they are no less human than you and I. They are exhausted, frightened, frustrated, despondent, sentimental, joyous, hopeful, and forever working towards their goals. Life throws its hurdles, and each one is tackled, even if it does take a short lifetime. Can you imagine what it would be like to spends years at the bottom on a pond? Through all this, they grow stronger, never losing sight of their aims, growing, learning and interacting with all whom cross their path. Just one more step, they will get there in the end.

The mouse and his child, who had learned so much and had prevailed against such overwhelming odds, never could be persuaded to teach a success course… The whole secret of the thing, they insisted, was simply and at all costs to move steadily ahead, and that, they said, could not be taught. 

The Mouse and his Child is a truly phenomenal children’s book, which has just as much, if not more, to offer to adult readers. I feel really thankful to have discovered this book, and look forward, truthfully, to a time when I can share it with the children in my life.

Millroy the Magician – Paul Theroux

“We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.” ― J.K. Rowling

My fiancé (oh yes!) recently finished reading this book and passed it on to me, insisting I read it my first possible opportunity. It didn’t take me quite as long to finish, he seemed to take months and months over it, but I can definitely understand why it might take someone a while to get through. The book is, shall I say, a little bit tricky. This is not a book you would want to attempt in a single sitting; it’s definitely one to take your time over.

Milroy the Magician – Paul Theroux

Our cheering drowned the music, but Milroy did not seem to hear it. He looked dignified, holding the flapping eagle, and he turned to me, and stared as he had before, and leaned over to where I sat in the second row.

Popping my thumb out of my mouth made the sound of a cork being yanked from a bottle.

Even through the cheering crowds his voice was distinct, as he said, ‘I want to eat you.’

So I stayed for his second show.

51WXvY4gl2LJilly Farina was nervous the day she attended the Barnstable County Fair. It was a hot, sticky Saturday in July and she was all by herself. Her Dada was black-out-drunk, so she went on alone, sitting at the back of the bus, quietly sucking her thumb, and thinking about what the fair had in store for her.

She had seen Millroy the Magician once before, he was famous for making an elephant disappear, and had once turned a girl from the audience into a glass of milk and drank her. Jeekers! But when Jilly stepped into the wickerwork coffin during a performance she had no idea that he would transform her life into something magical, and a touch bizarre.

You see, Millroy was no ordinary magician. A magical, eccentric, vegetarian, health fanatic, Millroy was set on changing the eating habits of the whole of America – Millroy could sense the future, and he knew that Jilly had a big role to play.

I was supposed to meet my father at the Barnstaple County Fair, and in a way I did, though he was not Dada.

Paul Theroux presents Jilly as a girl who is very young for her years. The world which emerges through Jilly’s eyes is that inhabited by a scared, lonely child. As a reader you enter the body of Jilly, and stand, absent mindedly sucking your thumb and stroking your ear, while dreamily drinking in the world around you. As a reader, you grow to know Jilly intimately, to understand her innocence and naivety.

It is really no wonder that Millroy chose her.

Jilly’s relationship with Millroy is an odd combination of love and fear, sometimes one, sometimes both, and often shifting quickly from one to the other. The relationship is, on the whole, slightly awkward. While it is obvious that Jilly dotes on Millroy they remain entirely separate beings, always together, but forever apart. It is obvious that she fears him, or at least she fears his magic, but at the same time loves him, as a father or perhaps something more?

Even odder is Millroy’s relationship with Jilly. If Jilly dotes on Millroy, then Millroy obsesses over Jilly. Linked to this is Millroy’s own obsession with food – he is determined to inform the American public of the evils of the American food industry, but more than this, he is obsessed with feeding Jilly.

Food is an underlying and overlying theme. The whole book is brimming with pottage, homemade bread, green tea, broiled fish and herbage. Try reading the book without in some way succumbing to the desire to be regular – I’m sure it can’t be done. I developed such an appetite for leaves! Millroy is forever chewing, munching or gulping some delectable healthy snack, while preaching the importance of a clean, fresh, healthy, regular lifestyle. At the same time, Millroy obsesses over the dark side of food, the insidious nature of the American food industry, the sweating, drooling, gasping, jiggling American population, stuffed full of fat, chemicals, meat and sugar.

If the American food industry is insidious, what is even more insidious is Millroy’s interest in Jilly. Why is he so obsessed with her? Why does he want to be responsible for ‘everything’ that goes inside of her? And why does he fall to pieces at the idea of losing her? It is almost as though he is in some way dependent on Jilly, not just emotionally, but physically, as though he is feeding off of her.

This is one of the oddest books I have ever read. It left me with so many questions, which I’m not sure have clear cut answers: Who is Millroy? What is the root of his magic? Does the magic pass on? Does it destroy the bearer? So many questions, and so many potential answers.

Millroy the Magician is a strange book – but one that I very much enjoyed reading. It is absorbing, without much action, and tense, without real drama. Each passage speaks volumes, without relaying much in the way of actual events. I feel as though the story is more of a journey in itself than an adventure – sure, Millroy travels across America and achieves amazing things, but in the end has much changed? Are Millroy and Jilly much different? Or have they merely switched roles?

On the whole, would recommend.

And yes, he did propose ❤

The Crystal Gryphon – Andre Norton

“Never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably slink in after it.” ― Baltasar Gracián

My first vintage paperback courtesy of the Prudence and the Crow subscription introduced me to the wonderful world of Andre Norton and the fantastical realm of the Witch World series. It was so much fun receiving, and reading, a book I probably would have never experienced without the help of Prudence and the Crow. I’m so glad I found the service, and so happy to have found a new author to explore.

I was as keen-eared as any child who knows that others talk about him behind their hands. And I had heard the garbled stories of my birth, of that curse which lay upon the blood of Ulm, together with the hint that neither was my mother’s House free of the taint of strange mixture. The proof of both was perhaps in my flesh and bone. I had only to look at the mirror of Jago’s polished shield to see it for myself.

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The Crystal Gryphon is the story of Kerovan, heir to the throne of Ulmsdale, who, thanks to the circumstances and result of his birth, is set apart from the regular folk in the Dales. When Kerovan’s mother gave birth to him she did so sheltered in a ruin of the ‘Old Ones’, mysterious folk who once inhabited the Dales, and Kerovan was born with the cloven feet of cattle and eyes the colour of deepest amber. Kerovan’s mother, the Lady Tephana, swore she could never love such a creature, and Kerovan was forced to grow up living apart from his birth family, with Jago – a keepless man of good birth.

With Jago Kerovan learns the arts of war. But it is the Wiseman Riwal that nurtures Kerovan’s true passion; a thirst for knowledge of the secrets of the past. With Riwal Kerovan travels to places feared by the folk of the Dales, looking for answers. On one such journey Kerovan comes upon a mysterious crystal pendant, adorned with a gryphon, and feels compelled to send the relic to the wife he has never met, the Lady Joisan. Across the land,  Joisan treasures the relic, and dreams of the husband she will one day meet. But in the year of the Moss, when Joisan is due to take up her wifely duties, a bloody war sweeps through the land as the Dales fall victim to an invasion from the sea. The keep at Ulmsdale is betrayed and Kerovan sets off across the Dales to find his betrothed whose own home has been destroyed.

The developing relationship between Joisan and Kerovan forms the base of the main storyline and the chapters of the book alternate, being told by Kerovan and Joisan in turn. Despite having never met, Joisan and Kerovan each harbour a certain fondness for each other, each of them drawn, and warmed by the other. As though they are bonded by something stronger than the laws which connect them as husband and wife, a deeper presence draws them to one another. Even when Joisan mistakes Kerovan for one of the Old Ones, you can tell that she is drawn towards him, the strange ‘Lord Amber’, despite not knowing his true identity.

Norton uses Olde English-style dialogue, and a medieval-type setting to create a spectacular backdrop for a strange, dark and somewhat frightening fantasy world. From the start I was completely absorbed by the mystery surrounding the Old Ones. I can imagine the parts of the world that were inhabited by this mysterious race of beings appearing like a ghost town, deserted, but with an ominous presence alluding to troubled past. I am fascinated by old buildings and the remains of ancient civilisations, so the idea of there being such relics, buildings and ruins dotted across the countryside, which tell only part of the tale of a whole different existence is really quite mesmerising to me. I was so easily drawn into Kerovan’s travels, and got completely caught up in the mystery of his fantasy world. The whole way through The Crystal Gryphon I was desperate to know more about the Old Ones, and the world that they inhabited.

Thank goodness it is only the first of a trilogy! The Crystal Gryphon is a wonderfully mysterious and gripping tale, which combines the fantastical with the uncanny, and at times borders on the downright creepy. I don’t know what more to say other than I loved it and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the trilogy has in store.

The House at the End of Hope Street – Menna Van Praag

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ― W. B. Yeats

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‘The house has stood at the end of Hope Street for nearly two hundred years. It’s larger than all the others, with turrets and chimneys rising into the sky. The front garden grows wild, the long grasses scattered with cowslips, reaching toward the low-hanging leaves of the willow trees. At night the house looks like a Victorian orphanage housing a hundred despairing souls, but when the clouds part and it is lit by moonlight, the house appears to be enchanted. As if Rapunzel lives in the lower tower and a hundred Sleeping Beauties lie in the beds.’

This book is so incredibly sweet and gentle, definitely one for a lazy afternoon where you just want to curl up with a book and wile away the hours.

In The House at the End of Hope Street Van Praag vicariously lives out her dream of providing a safe refuge for women who have lost hope and need a place to recover and find their direction in life.

Alba Ashby, the youngest PhD student at Cambridge University has hit an enormous bump in her journey towards academic success. Alone and beside herself she begins to wander the streets of Cambridge, her mind constantly wandering back to ‘the worst event’ of her life. As she walks she attempts to shake away her memories and search for solace in the dark streets of the university city. One night something calls to her on the wind and she finds herself stood before a mysterious house on Hope Street, unconsciously ringing the doorbell. There the beautiful Peggy Abbot welcomes her with open arms and a steaming cup of hot chocolate. Alba is invited to remain at Hope Street for no more than 99 days: ‘long enough to help you turn your life around and short enough that you can’t put it off forever’. As well as having the luxury of no rent or bills, and a room of her own, Alba is promised that she will not have to work through her problems alone.169457_3d60d4c13a1677754831f3f04683f9d2_large

‘If you stay I can promise you this,’ Peggy says. ‘This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need. And the event that brought you here, the thing that you think is the worst thing that’s ever happened? When you leave, you’ll realize it was the very best thing of all.’

Alba is an unusual girl, gifted with a second sight. She has the ability to see those who are no longer living as well as things that others cannot see – sounds, emotions, feelings and scents trail through the air before her very eyes. Birds sing in blue and weave ribbons through the sky, and the words of those she speaks with emerge before her eyes, written as if by an imaginary typewriter, revealing the speakers true colours. When she steps through the door of 11 Hope Street she is perhaps not as surprised as the reader by the magical world enclosed within, and not in the least bit startled by the ghost of girl sat smiling in the kitchen sink.

In The House at the End of Hope Street Van Praag introduces us to an enchanting, magical world. Over the years the house has been home to great women throughout history, black and white images of Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker come to life to offer words of wisdom and advice to Alba, the walls rattle and breathe and Alba’s room transforms, filling with book cases, and fluttering copies of hundred of novels. The house is alive, and drops hints and ideas into the minds of the residents, placing notes on their dressers, providing them with gifts to nurture their talents, and denying them those which they must seek elsewhere. Bookish Alba spends her first days curled up in the cocoon of her bedroom, losing herself in the books provided for her by the house, before slowly embarking on her own journey.

In her time at Hope Street Alba goes through even more heartbreak and devastation, as she loses the person closest to her and discovers the truth behind a long kept family secret. These events help guide her on the road towards self-fulfilment, as though every cloud really does have a silver lining. For the first time in her life she is able to make friends, rather than just acquaintances, and she discovers that people living right beneath her nose will soon come to mean the world to her.

)7_WillPryce_CUL_There are twists in the story, some that I saw coming, and some that I didn’t, but all of which are delightful and sure go bring a smile to your face. Do not expect to find out exactly what Alba is running from right away, it takes some time, Van Praag teases the secret out deliciously, keeping you reading on long after you should have put the book down and started on supper.

As a Cambridge girl myself, I really enjoyed reading about the Cambridge Alba inhabits. I loved to imagine her slipping on the cobbles outside Trinity College, and running through the lanes, darting into a little bookshop to shelter from the rain, and delighted at her description of the Cambridge University Library as ‘her cathedral’.

Bookish types are sure to enjoy this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys gentle fantasy and magical realism. I would not say the book has changed my life and made it onto my favourites list, but I definitely enjoyed it, and was awarded with that warm feeling of satisfaction that comes from finishing a truly pleasant book.

Cambridge Book Club – The Miniaturist

18498569Last week I met up with the Cambridge Book Club for the first time. The book up for discussion this month was Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, which, if you live anywhere other than under a stone, you will no doubt be familiar with. But for those of you who have avoided looking at the best-seller lists for the past few months, here’s a quick summary:

The Miniaturist tells the story of 18-year-old Petronella “Nella” Ooortman, who travels from her humble family home, to a house in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam, owned by wealthy Dutch merchant, and Nella’s new husband, Johannes Brandt.

As she steps beyond the threshold of the Brandt household, Nella is welcomed not by the warm embrace of her new love, but the cold words of Johannes’ sister, Marin, and the immature giggles of the household staff. She finds herself, not the mistress of a grand abode, but a stranger in a foreign land. Her feelings of isolation are further compounded, by her illusive husbands wedding gift to her, a cabinet-sized replica of her new home.

The Brandt household is not all it seems, however, and Nella soon find her new home life begins unravelling around her. She soon realises the steps she must take to save the family from ruin. Expect to uncover hidden loves, seething scandals, and a mysterious miniaturist who predicts her customers’ future. Travel back to Amsterdam in this unflinching tale of a family’s journey towards freedom in a repressive and judgemental society.

On the whole I really enjoyed the book, I found the storyline intriguing, and once I had started I struggled to put the book down. I don’t think it’s a life changing piece of literature, it’s a best-seller, and as such is quite widely appealing and very readable.

Here are some of the main themes and questions that emerged in our discussion:

– The miniaturist’s identity: Could more have been done with this character? Did Burton give enough of an explanation?
– The fate of the characters: How would the household have survived after the novel had ended?
– The ‘twist’: Was it good enough? Did Burton take a too obvious route?
– Burton’s treatment of Marin, Johannes’ stern, feminist sister: Why did Burton choose to take this route with Marin? Did she remain true to her identity?
– The relationship between Cornelia and Otto: Was there more to this than first met the eye?
– Corruption, and the criminal underworld of Amsterdam: Do you think Burton delved far enough into this area? Was just peeking beneath the surface sufficient?

Private Pleasures – Hamdy el-Gazzar

“All I know is that when I whisper to dirt, my conversations are less than meaningful.” ― Maggie Stiefvater

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I was drawn to Middle Eastern literature after reviewing A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I enjoyed the book so much that I had to see what else there was on offer. Also, and this may seem a bit naïve on my part, I have really enjoyed other translated texts I have read, in particular French translations, and the work of Haruki Murakami – so I was interested to see how an Arabic translation would read.

I chose this book in particular because I was intrigued by the synopsis in the publisher’s catalogue:

Private Pleasures describes the three-day sex, drink, and drug binge of a thirty-something newsreader in the back streets and crumbling apartments of his native Giza, that pullulating mass of humanity that, like an ugly sister, sits opposite Cairo on the Nile’s west bank.

Sex, drink and drugs – it seemed like it could be interesting, so I requested a copy.

For me the book got off to a good start, you know I am a sucker for a rich description, and I was drawn into el-Gazzar’s initial portrayal of Giza square:

Behind us, Giza square is a raucous pullulating, raging inferno, filled to its farthest limits with lights, sounds, and shapes and crowded to overflowing with bodies, objects, and goods of every conceivable kind. The square is a giant, twisted oblong bathed in the evening lights shining from the buildings and tall towers scattered about the corners of its celebrated streets: Murad, University, el-Sanadeeli, Saad Zaghloul, Salah Salim.

This wasn’t the most beautiful description I’ve ever read, but it really appealed to me. This scene does not paint Giza Square in a particularly romantic of light, or spread the square out in front of the eyes of the reader to scrutinise in the smallest details, there is no description of the buildings themselves, or the eyes of the people encased within the square. Instead it is described in its entirety as a teeming cess pool of activity filled with bodies crawling over one another, likes rats in a ship’s hold.

Unfortunately, after my initial delight at the author’s descriptions, it all went downhill.

I first got the inclination I wasn’t going to like the book when al-Gazzar introduced Simone, the beautiful, fair-skinned street walker. Any liking I had had for the author’s description of Giza went out of the window with his crude analysis of Simone. Her breasts are, ‘round and large as pomegranates’, she is chewing a ‘large piece of bubble gum in her small mouth’ which she rolls around with her ‘red tongue, popping it like a child.’ – These description are nothing like as evoking as those previously used. They are almost childlike, and then, as if to prove my point, he rounds off his description by summing up her face as ‘innocent and attractive’ – one of the vaguest statements I have ever read.

The introduction of Simone seems like a good time to bring in the sexual aspect of the book, I say ‘aspect’ but really there is little in the book which is not sexualised to the highest degree possible. I don’t mind overly sexual books, but this one is nothing short of obscene and downright ludicrous. I was most perturbed by the protagonist’s sudden interruption of his friend in the midst of doing the dirty with the fair Simone:

Impetuous and crafty, I galloped towards them like a donkey in heat, grabbed her breasts hard with both hands, plastered myself against her from behind, and plunged it between her white buttocks.
I lifted her thighs from the floor and put her into a kneeling position so that she looked like a coddled white bitch quietly standing there, and then I spread her legs apart till her buttocks clenched and quivered.
With schooled professionalism, she raised her backside into the air and displayed her two red passages.’

I didn’t just dislike this description; it made me cringe to think that anyone would ever describe sex, however primitive, in this way.  The idea of someone raising their backside up with ‘schooled professionalism’ is completely perplexing, even more so is the fact that she displayed her ‘two red passages’ – I’ve never heard the female anatomy described in this way before, and I don’t think anyone should ever use it again.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a too-long succession of sex scenes, perverted streams of consciousness, and other randomly sexualised scenarios. The most ridiculous of which is a lengthy tale about a young girl possessed by a demon who made her overly sexual in every way shape and form:

Her family lived in constant fear that her breasts would burst forth in the faces of the passersby, that she might on some occasion reach down to her drawers, rip them to pieces, and throw them in people’s faces.

Yes, her family lived in fear that ‘her breasts would burst forth in the faces of passersby’. I’ll leave that at that, I don’t feel as though I need to explain why I found this ridiculous and unnecessarily perverse. By all means be in fear of the fact that she may disgrace the family, but not that her breasts will ‘burst forth’, no one lives in fear of that.

I felt at one point close to the end, when the three day-drink and drug binge which gave birth to two hundred pages of perverted stream of consciousness and overly self-pitying reflection was over, that the protagonist may have been about to redeem himself. After his wife had spent three nights devotedly feeding him warm milk while he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, I thought that perhaps he would see this as an opportunity to make things right with her, to start again, from fresh, but I was to be disappointed.  Instead, after eating the food his wife prepared for him he went out again to smoke and feel sorry for himself some more.

One the whole, I found the book to be, not only perverted and grotesque, but completely self-obsessed and self-pitying. The protagonist was one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever come across. I was so relieved to have finished the book, after committing far too much of my time to struggling through each and every page.

With this as my first experience of an Arabic translation I have to say that I do not think it works well in English at all. Perhaps it reads much better in its native language, but I found it to be difficult and ugly to read. There was no beauty used to the language; it was harsh, and awkward. The whole experience has put me off of the idea of reading Arabic literature, if not for good, then for a while at least. Perhaps I will try again with something a little less controversial, but for now I feel happy to be ending this chapter of my reading life.

I was sent a copy of Private Pleasures by the publisher in exchange for a review.