Thursday, 31 October 2013

Swimming and Flying (Mark Haddon)

--The blurb--
"Prize-winning novelist Mark Haddon, author of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME and most recently THE RED HOUSE, explores his childhood fear of swimming and his adult fear of flying in a[n..] essay that unfolds into [...] reflections about the craft of writing and about life itself."

--The review--
A quick search on Amazon reveals a staggering choice of nearly 592,000 results in the field of biography - so you'd think that the market was saturated. However, in the midst of all the celebrity fluff and traditional chronological structures has come a breath of fresh air in the form of Mark Haddon's effort, entitled Swimming And Flying. While some cunning individuals have uploaded it to the web as a PDF, it is unfortunately only officially available as a Kindle Single, which is a shame, as this could potentially block out a significant number of Haddon's fans: those who don't own a Kindle, mainly, but also those who just prefer 'real' books.

This is also a great shame due to the fact that Swimming And Flying, as mentioned, truly refreshes the biography genre thanks to its clear yet 'patchwork' style: Haddon's structuring of the text into short passages, rather than chapters, allows for true pauses for thought, and the text's genesis as a series of speeches (or 'stand-up serious', as Haddon himself dubs it) lends this biography an especially intimate, down-to-earth aspect.

There is, equally, plenty of mileage not just in this autobiography's style but also in its premise of 'swimming and flying': while Haddon does address his fears of these two pursuits (as a child and as an adult respectively), the metaphorical translations of 'swimming' and 'flying' through life itself is also heavily implied thanks to Haddon's ability to overcome these fears and to deal with other good and bad times in his life so far. This wide basis of the memoir ensures that all readers will find something within it that they can identify with, and, moreover, repeatedly: the accessible method of using short passages means that rereads are merited, as readers can dip in and out, making further connections between different sections and between the author's life and theirs.

By laying his fears bare, Haddon shows that he is as flawed as anyone else. However, by also showing details of how he has overcome them, he is inspirational without being smug. Tales of determination are always of value - and it is simply to be hoped that this mini-memoir will eventually be published beyond the Kindle Single format, so that many more readers can benefit.

other works by Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003)
A Spot of Bother (2006)
The Red House (2012) 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Flight of the Maidens (Jane Gardam)

  --The blurb--
"This [...] novel describes the post-war summer of 1946 - and follows the growing-up of three young women in the months between leaving school and taking up their scholarships at university. Una Vane, whose widowed mother runs a hairdressing salon in her front room ('Maison Vane Glory - Where Permanent Waves are Permanent'), goes bicycling with Ray, the boy who delivers the fish and milk. Hetty Fallowes struggles to become independent of her possessive, loving, tactless mother. And Lieselotte Klein, who had arrived in 1939 on a train from Hamburg, uncovers tragedy in the past and magic in the present."

--The review--
With today's teens glued to their smartphones and with more material privilege (in many cases) than their parents had, it can be difficult to remind oneself at times that in fact not everything has changed so drastically for present-day youths. With students in their final year of school now in the thick of university applications and interviews, and wondering what to do with the rest of their lives, their emotional locus is, in many ways, in much the same place as the female protagonists of Jane Gardam's 2000 novel, The Flight of the Maidens, which sees seventeen-year-olds Una, Hetty and Lieselotte making pivotal choices as they stand on the cusp of adulthood.

Through these characters, Gardam puts paid to the idea that is perhaps held by many young people today: that all teens in the immediately post-war years were obedient, non-rebellious and totally responsible. While the girls are stoic in the face of adversity, they are also feisty, engage in passionate relationships, and disagree vehemently with their parents. This is all set against the backdrop of the Second World War's consequences on everyday people, but it is the protagonists, not the historical context, that take centre stage, making the teens' exploits relevant to today's readers. 

Enhancing all of this are Gardam's witty turns of phrase and the very human characteristics of the personages inhabiting The Flight of the Maidens. In all of these characters we recognise less-than-pretty aspects of ourselves or of our acquaintances, and we are encouraged by turns both to celebrate and to change these attributes. By placing our faults as human beings under the microscope, Gardam arguably creates the novel's most important message: of being kind to others, as we have no idea what they are going through, or of what will happen to all of us next. This applies perhaps most significantly and equally to Lieselotte and to Hetty's mother.

This could suggest that Gardam's main reason for writing is didacticism, but the novel's sheer readability and lack of a nagging tone implies that the primary purpose is escapism and nostalgia. In indulging in Una, Hetty and Lieselotte's various exploits, we are reminded of ourselves and of how crucial a time being seventeen is. Light yet soul-searching, The Flight of the Maidens is therefore essential bedtime reading not just for today's seventeen-year-old girls but also those who are still seventeen at heart.

other novels by Jane Gardam*
Bilgewater (1977)
God on the Rocks (1978)
Crusoe's Daughter (1985)
The Queen of the Tambourine (1991)
Black Woolly Pony (1993)
Faith Fox (1996)
Old Filth (2004)
The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009)
Last Friends (2013)

*Jane Gardam has also written a number of short story collections, as well as books for children.