“Pig-Heart Boy” by Malorie Blackman
The author is an acclaimed children’s writer so I thought I would investigate. Pretty good I thought as a book but for a younger reader so, not really holding my interest. I am ambivalent about trying her “Naughts and Crosses” series. Does anyone have a view on these?
“George III and his Troublesome Siblings” by Stella Tillyard
Another book on George III. This one gave potted histories of the more troublesome siblings. And they were delightfully scandalous but overall the book was unsatisfactory. It should have hung together as all of the protagonists were members of the same family but there didn’t really seem to be great ties of affection between the siblings and their inter-relationships are pretty cold and formal. So it was like reading about several different 18th century scandals. All very well in its way but the author is trying to link them around the over-arching theme of family and it just doesn’t work. This is a very old fashioned family and the siblings do not enjoy the kinds of relationship which could make their interactions with each other particularly interesting. It’s hard to see how much of a personal relationship George III enjoyed with his sister Caroline who was 13 years his junior and married off to the Danish king at the age of 15. I can’t help feeling that it would have been better as a series of essays on each of the siblings. But then, I suppose, nobody would have bought it.
“Two Caravans” by Marina Lewycka
This is about a group of exploited migrant workers in the UK. I thought that it was a bit twee (unlikely given the subject matter but nevertheless true). It’s put me right off ever, ever buying battery chickens though.
“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett
I thought that this was interesting but a bit sentimental. My emotions are easily manipulated but this does not mean that I like crying every two pages when I am reading a book. It’s about the relationship between black maids in Jackson, Mississippi and their white employers. It’s cleverly plotted and has quite a number of threads to keep interest alive and the characters are well drawn although Hilly (baddie in chief) and Celia (white trash girl who married Hilly’s boy) are a bit one dimensional. But there are a lot of characters in this story and it’s hard to give fully rounded personalities to all of them, I imagine. The narrative device that drives the book forward is that a young white woman wants to talk to her friends’ maids about their relationships with their employers and write a book about it. I suspect the author, a white woman from Jackson, is alive to the irony of the fact that her own first novel about the relationship between black maids and their white employers is a best-seller. The author puts in an afterword where she talks about her own relationship with the black woman who looked after her when she was a child in Jackson. I must say I quite liked the fact that she admitted there that fact and fiction were somewhat blended in the text and how much the novel was driven by her own experience and imagining. Not bad then, I suppose.
“Citizen Lord” by Stella Tillyard
This summer appears to be the summer of the 18th century for me. This is the story of Lord Edward Fitzgerald and I was fascinated by it. I learnt all about the 1798 uprising in school. In fact, my best friend and I wrote a play about it which we staged for our class when we are 11. All I can really remember about the play now (lost, alas, to humanity) is the oath of the United Irishmen (which I think we invented but may have been based on the genuine article – a quick search of the internet was unhelpful on this point) which went something like: “This is the bloom of freedom – where was it first planted? In America. Where did it first blossom? In France. Where will it blossom again and strike down the foreign oppressor? In Ireland.” She got to be Wolfe Tone and I was stuck with the less exciting role of Edward Fitzgerald.
It is, however, very different to learn about the ’98 rebellion at school and at home (any mention of ’98, even 1998 was likely to lead to my mother reciting “Who fears to speak of ’98“?) and to read about it from the point of view of a British historian. She tells me a lot more about Lord Edward than I ever knew before. He sounds very dashing but just the kind of rebel leader we always have in Ireland: absolutely hopeless. As written, he seems to have been entirely motivated by republican ideals rather than the plight of the Irish peasant (always a bit grim, only one season of blight away from starvation and with no civil rights to speak of) which seems deeply unlikely. The account of his death, in jail, from his wounds is really very sad and there is an angry letter from his brother, Lord Henry, to the Lord Lieutenant which still has a sting over 200 years later:
“I implored, I entreated of you to let me see him. I never begged hard before. All, all in vain. You talked of lawyers’ opinions, of what had been refused to others and could not be granted for me in the same situation. His was not a common case – he was not in the same situation. He was wounded and in a manner dying, and his bitterest enemy could not have murmured had your heart softened, or had you swerved a little from duty (if it can be called one) in the cause of humanity.”
What I find oddest about the book and what Mr. Waffle refused to believe when I told him, is that the book ends with the death of Edward Fitzgerald and this is its focus. As he was dying and after his death, the rebellion was being crushed. The rebellion of which he was the reluctant leader is given short shrift, covered in a half page or so while his miserable demise is covered in very significant detail. I know that the author’s brief was to cover Edward Fitzgerald’s life but I cannot imagine an Irish historian writing a life of Edward Fitzgerald and covering the Battle of Vinegar Hill in the following short sentence: “Only in Wexford, where twenty thousand rebels marched into the town and proclaimed a republic, was there a tangible sense that political ideals were overriding economic and sectarian grievances and that was punished by the slaughter of thousands.”
The author seems to imply that ecomonic and sectarian grievances were not very worthy matters to base a rebellion on but as people were horribly poor and the majority catholic population were subject to the penal laws, it seems like a pretty good basis to me. The author herself says: “I have not attempted to describe or interpret the rebellion itself in my text, partly because it lies beyond Lord Edward’s life, and partly because it has been brilliantly researched and written about by the latest generation of Irish historians, both ‘revisionist’ and ‘nationalist’, who have put forward a convincing portrait of a political struggle aggravated by economic and sectarian grievances rather than the other way round, as had been promulagated until the mid-1960s.” I am not convinced by this explanation and I think that the book is the poorer for, essentially, leaving out the rebellion altogether.