Hazel McHaffie

Marcelle Bernstein

Second time around

I am lost in admiration. What a terrific skill it is for a story to begin in a writer’s imagination and finish vividly in the reader’s, and for someone to be just as riveted by it even on a subsequent reading when the end is known.

It’s extremely rare for me to read a book a second time; there are just far too many new ones out there, but one indulgence of my convalescence post-surgery has been lots of extra sitting-down-time. So, I made a conscious decision this week to revisit one of my favourites: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein, which I mentioned in my last post, and see how I felt about it now. It’s probably about 15 years since I bought it and although I remembered the final twist in the tale, I certainly couldn’t recall the detail. I’m in a different place myself today, much more analytical/critical, much more intrigued by the structure of a story, the skill of the writing – would I love it as much today as I did then?

In brief so as not to spoil the joy for anyone else:
Two young women – one a nun in a Latin American country and the other a prisoner in a London penitentiary – are linked in some inexplicable and potentially deadly way. One has given her life in service to God, the other is serving a life sentence for killing a child. Now the nun is nearing death but the cause of her illness is baffling both the medics and the nuns. Intrigued by certain peculiarities in her behaviour and drawn to this fragile and clearly troubled young religious fading away in front of him, a Jesuit priest is determined to do what he can to discover what links these two women and halt this spiral towards an untimely death. As he’s drawn deeper into the horror of their stories he’s forced to face his own demons and choices.

And yes, it was every bit as mesmerising, every bit as impressive, as I remembered. The three main characters are beautifully wrought, their back-stories are cleverly unravelled; you get drawn in by each of them, caring about what happens to them all. Then there’s exactly the right amount of suspense and revelation to keep you on the edge of your seat. And it’s very neatly balanced, with sharp contrasts: life in a closed religious order / in a prison; warm parenting / pathological; devotion to God / craving for human closeness; right / wrong; selfish ambition / self sacrificing love. In a couple of places the author’s research is perhaps a little two obvious, and the detail in the sex scenes doesn’t sit comfortably in the context, but her understanding of the various settings is rich and authentic, and with a deftness of touch she has created evocative settings and secondary characters that come alive on the page.

I am blown away for the second time. And I take this opportunity to salute all authors who have the skill to tell a gripping and challenging tale of this order … including Linda Castillo whose blood-chilling thriller, Sworn to Silence, I picked up next. Castillo’s new to me but I was left awed by her ability to capture very different worlds too. The nuances of life in the gentle peace-loving Amish community and what makes an Amish father refuse to travel in a police car but instead trundle for hours in a horse and buggy to identify his murdered daughter, on the one hand. The psychology of a sociopath who tortures and kills innocent young women without compunction, and who, though he has teenage daughters of his own, can slit the throats and eviserate the bodies and carve his trademark numerals into the skin of other parents’ living daughters, at the other end of the spectrum.

How can someone imagine all this, capture it, convey it so brilliantly? What trauma have they endured doing so?

The poet and novelist, Ben Okri, gave a speech at the 2017 Society of Authors’ Awards in London and put it like this:
‘…writing well, writing really well, so that it is still fresh and alive in a hundred years, is harder than being the prime minister, the president or almost any other job on earth. And why is it so hard? Because it is a damn mystery how it is done. Intelligence doesn’t do it. cleverness doesn’t do it, the right college or university or writing school won’t do it. It is a mystery how it is done, and a miracle when it is done.
Here’s to the art and the craft, the mystery and the miracle.’

Amen.

 

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What’s in a name?

Today’s post emerges from two people who share a name and whose actions have impinged upon my life as a writer.

The first is Marcel Proust, said to be one of the greatest French authors of the 20th Century. OK, he died in 1922, when my mother was 2 years old – so why is he affecting me in 2017?

Well, one of my pet hates is people who endlessly trumpet their own success or brilliance. It happens sometimes on social media, but at least then you usually know who the guilty party is and can assess/dismiss their accolades for what they’re worth. It’s a different matter when they do it incognito. Over the years, various people – reporters, other authors – have exposed writers for faking reviews of their own books and there’s widespread condemnation for such practices.

So it’s something of a paradox that big money is being made out of fraud that predates electronic communication and computers. But so it is. Letters Proust wrote to his editor have recently come to light which show that he employed his legendary literary skill to write superlative reviews of his own novels – really over-the-top, immodest attributions, I mean; comparing himself favourably to Charles Dickens – which were then published under other names or anonymously. And what’s more, his publisher was complicit in this practice.

The letters were discovered in a rare early copy of one of his books – whoops! But those same letters are now themselves going under the hammer at the end of this month and are expected to realise a handsome sum – and I’m talking hundreds of thousands of pounds here! Of course, it’s only because Proust’s work is so highly respected that there’s such a stooshie but still …

What a weirdly convoluted world we live in. I may be (I am!) too backward in coming forward where my own books are concerned, but my conscience is more at ease with that than it ever could be with indecent or unsavoury or unethical promotion.

The second Marcel is actually Marcelle: Marcelle Bernstein. Heard of her? Probably not  – although she’s a woman of distinction with several awards under her belt. And I’m sure she has never stooped to boost her own profile by anything so ill-judged as Proust. I mention her for quite a different reason. I loved her book Sacred and Profane when I read it years ago, but until this week I’d never got around to reading anything else she’s written. When Body and Soul came to the top of my tbr pile, of course, the shared name struck me as an interesting coincidence.

The author, Bernstein, herself has actually lived in a Carmellite convent as part of her research for a documentary about the life of the religious, and she can write about the inner turmoils as well as the outer deprivations with some authority and understanding. So perhaps it’s not surprising that both Sacred and Profane and Body and Soul are set in nunneries.

I’ve reviewed Sacred and Profane (1995) elsewhere so I’ll limit my comments to Body and Soul (1991) which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps my expectations were too high but I confess I was disappointed this time around. Sister Gabriel (Anna in the outside world) is in her early thirties and struggling with her vows after 13 years in a closed contemplative order in Wales. Her inner anguish is exposed to greater scrutiny when her brother Simon commits suicide leaving behind a pregnant wife, two small boys, a stack of debts, and a failing woollen mill. Anna is given a rather begrudging dispensation to go out into the outside world to help her distraught sister-in-law, and suddenly she’s aware of how much isolation and seclusion from temptation have been protecting her from her own wants and needs. ‘The habit had been a medieval chrysalis, protecting her from the twentieth century. It had given her a version of herself she could no longer accept: too passive, too patient, negative.’

Once outside, this rather stern, solitary, sheltered woman falls prey to many a worldly emotion and lure. For me, I must confess, the plot was too thin, I didn’t care enough about the characters, and worse, Anna’s fall from grace simply didn’t ring true. Would a shy inhibited puritan with so many sexual hangups and taboos really submit so easily to the gropings of assorted men she’d just met? Would she abandon so many of her customary ingrained habits and adopt hitherto shunned and despised practices? I think not. So for me, this book was perfectly readable, but not believable or memorable.

Why then do I mention it? Because it reinforces the fact that reading is subjective, that an author will probably not please all the people all the time, that research only takes a novelist so far, and that one can never rest on one’s laurels in this business. Even a book loved decades ago might not appeal where the same reader is today. All important lessons for me as a writer and my own most severe critic.

 

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Odious comparisons

For the most part I don’t like to compare different authors. They aren’t in competition; they each have their own tale to tell, in their own way, for their own audiences. But this week in the course of reducing the number of books on my tbr bookshelves (ready for an anticipated influx next month!) I’ve been struck by the power of celebrity.

Stella Rimington? Yes, of course, we’ve all heard of her. Director General of MI5 in her professional life. High profile. Known name. But did I like her fiction? I did not. I chose At Risk – written when she’d got into her stride as a novelist. MI5 officer Liz Carlyle investigates a possible terrorist threat to a high security counter-terrorism meeting at Gleneagles. Looked promising given the author’s credentials. But … Style? No thanks. Plot? No thanks. Overall merit? No thanks. OK, this clever lady (Rimington, I mean), writing in her own area of expertise, may have successfully brought out 9 novels with bona fide publishers, but I have a sneaking suspicion her position had something to do with that. And I won’t personally be searching for more of her works.

Iain Banks? Yeah, we probably all remember his famous proposal to his girlfriend when he was terminally ill: would she do him the honour of becoming his widow. I hesitate to speak ill of the works of the dead but I’m afraid, for me, Banks has slithered into the same camp as Rimington:  Canal Dreams had little to commend it for me. A famous Japanese cellist with a fear of flying gets caught up in civil unrest in the Panama Canal aboard the tanker on which she’s a passenger. Alongside the horrors of being help captive by lawless violent men, she has a series of dark inexplicable dreams and flashbacks to various traumas in her life. Hmmm. End thought: what was there to commend this book? And yet, this guy has written and successfully published 24 novels. He is and will remain, famous. Happily he doesn’t need the endorsement of a nonentity like me.

So, my point thus far? Reading is subjective. I am not swayed by fame or fortune. I shall not like something simply because I’m told I should by others no matter how high they rank in the literary echelons. These writers don’t appeal to me. Simple as that. I did do them both the courtesy of finishing their books to give them a sporting chance (well, it’s a basic tenet of mine, not to say obsession, as you know) but that’s it.

On the other hand …

Marcelle Bernstein? Ever heard of her? Her name doesn’t crop up in quizzes, she doesn’t get major reviews, so probably not. Sacred and Profane has only one review on Amazon and yet it’s one of my top twenty favourite books. A nun collapses at prayer, crying out in agony. Thousands of miles away, a female prisoner wakes panic stricken at exactly the same moment. What links these two women? I was utterly gripped. Oh, and just so you know, Bernstein has in fact won awards as well as having many other strings to her bow.

And then there’s Jaishree Misra …? Me neither. But her book was on my shelf and I discovered this lady is high profile in India; and she’s published by mainstream publishers. Not my usual kind of reading, but I took a big breath and got stuck into Secrets and Sins by way of illustration for this blog. Riva Singh and Aman Khan meet briefly at college and have a short liaison. Now she’s a bestselling novelist and he a Bollywood heartthrob, both married to other people, when they meet again at the Cannes Film Festival. Will they follow their hearts or their heads? It wouldn’t feature on my top one hundred, I wouldn’t rush to find it’s sequel, but, viewed dispassionately, I found it easier to read that either of the celebrated works above.

However, best of all was my as-yet-unknown debut author of last week’s blog – remember him? I enjoyed his writing enormously even in its first draft form. Plot? Yes. Message? Yes. Overall merit? Yes indeedy. I guess I ought to put my mark against the day when he too is famous. You heard of him here first! He’s currently hard at work editing. Bring it on!

 

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Unsung masterpieces

With all the recent hype over the Man Booker prize it seems fitting to pause a moment and pay homage to authors whose work never wins the acclaim it deserves. I’m sure you, like me, have your own favourites – books that you personally love but the critics trash; unsung treasures discovered in a serendipidous way; gems that have changed the course of your thinking.

I’d love to start a campaign to get recognition for superb authors whose publishers don’t have a sufficiently robust marketing department or enough cash to promote their work effectively. But given current time constraints and resources maybe I’ll start small, and blog about it.

Some time ago a friend of mine was getting rid of a stash of books in readiness for moving house. I was only too happy to assist her in the task by squeezing a few of hers between the thousands I already own. Amongst her motley collection I found Niall Williams Four Letters of Love. I’d never even heard of Williams, an Irish writer, but the blurb intrigued me. And it was going begging. Well … what a delight lay in store. The writing is lyrical, evoking the lives, lores and loves of families living on an Irish island. Poetry in prose. To outline the plot would be to miss the whole point of this book, and I hate spoilers. But essentially it’s the story of two young people, Isabel Gore and Nicholas Coughlan, who are destined to love each other.

There is a meaning; there is a sense to everything,’ Nicholas Cougan thinks as, against all odds, he waits for his love to come to him. And somehow in this magical tale of romance and superstition, of profound wisdom and tragedy, one can suspend disbelief: dead people appear and are influencing lives; Irish mothers can smell and feel emotions in strangers; people are merely puppets in the play already written by a divine hand. You have to lose yourself in it to value it to the full. Try it and see.

And then there’s a book which has remained on my top ten list ever since I found it many years ago whilst browsing in a second-hand book shop in Saltash, looking for something to while away a journey from Cornwall to Scotland: Sacred and Profane by Marcelle Bernstein. The entire country flew by unnoticed. There are three main characters in the story: a nun, a prisoner, and a priest … sounds like a joke waiting for a punchline, doesn’t it? But this is not a humorous book; rather it deals with dark emotion and repressed drives, with lots of moral questions remaining to haunt you. (Well, you know what a sucker I am for an ethical dilemma!) All three characters are very well drawn, and the complex interweaving of their stories is totally gripping, culminating in an astonishing denouement. How come this masterpiece is virtually unknown?

If you haven’t read them, I recommend you do. And as part of this crusade to promote such neglected masterpieces, do you have any you’d like to share? Here’s your chance to strike a blow for your personal style of genius.

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