The Woman in White


Imagine the fattest man you’ve ever seen, make him exceedingly handsome, charming, clever and gallant, Italian, and a Count, add a wardrobe of brightly patterned waistcoats, and then pour in a healthy dose of Machiavellian cunning and manipulation. This gives you Fosco, one of literature’s more complex and vilely attractive villains.

He’s one of several characters that will invade your mind and distract you from your day job when you allow yourself to wonder into the strange, secretive and dangerous world of The Woman in White. His sidekick is the deeply duplicitous Sir Percival Glyde – once handsome, now balding, nasty and brutish, but capable of the genteel politeness necessary to snare himself a very rich wife. The trio of infamy is completed by Madam Fosco, a dark presence constantly at her husband’s side, quietly rolling his cigarettes, watching his back, and doing his evil bidding.

Ranged against these mercenary fortune hunters are half-sisters Laura Fairlie and Marian Holcombe, living a sequestered, quiet but relatively happy life in their uncle’s manor house. Life gets a little complicated for them when their new drawing master, Mr Hartright, a lovely, unassuming chap, falls madly for Laura and simultaneously captures the young lady’s heart. This is awkward enough given that they come from different social classes (a big no-no in 1850s England). But the real spanner in the works is Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival. Mr Hartright retreats to London, heart-broken and ashamed at his presumption, leaving the path clear for Sir Percival to really turn things upside down. For a moment, Laura looks like she might think better of the marriage – there’s her broken heart to consider, and the ominous, anonymous letter warning her of Sir Percival’s true dastardliness. But the wedding goes ahead, and minutes into the honeymoon, Laura realises that the scandal of marrying down would have been far preferable to life with the malicious Baron and the sinister Count and Countess.

Luckily, she is able to keep Marian by her side – a far wiser and more courageous woman than Laura ever aspires to be. The ethereal presence of a third woman, in appearance rather like a haggard shade of Laura herself, dressed all in white, seems to promise a possible way out of their doom. This woman in white hints at a terrible secret, which will destroy Sir Percival and set the sisters free. But the Count pounces on the ghostly waif, and it is left to the sisters themselves, with the timely help of the beloved Mr Hartright, to extricate them from their doom, and bring the evil-doers to justice.

The Woman in White has been appropriately lauded as the forerunner of the modern suspense novel. It’s a gripping read from start to finish, which will have you longing to abandon your desk and return to its pages as you puzzle over hidden identities, murky motives, and that dreadfully elusive secret that has Sir Percival so worried.

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A walk on the wild side

South Africa’s Wild Coast stretches from Port Edward in the north to East London in the south.  It’s an area of sparsely inhabited coastal cliffs and forest, where rivers end in waterfalls that crash directly into the ocean, and cows wonder down to the beach to cool off.
DSCN1134The area of beach between the Wild Coast Sun and the Mzamba river mouth is home to the Petrified Forest.  It’s a wide stretch of pristine sand, with sparkling ocean on one side, and steep dunes and lush vegetation on the other.  On the ocean side, sedimentary rocks form reefs in the shallows, stretching several meters into the water.  On the land side, the same sedimentary rock has been weathered and hollowed out over the centuries, forming caves in the sides of the dunes.  The rocks on both sides of the beach are rich with the fossilised remains of ancient turtle shells, shark teeth, giant clams, ammonites and trees.

A walk along the beach at low tide yields an abundance of fossilised treasures – but only if you know where to look. If you’re a little fuzzy about how to differentiate a rock from an ancient mammal bone, you’re well advised to hire local guide Bennie Mbotho to show you the ropes.
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Bennie is about the most laid-back and easy-going person you’ll ever meet, but he knows his fossils. He grew up on the Wild Coast. As a kid, he and his friends would scramble through the bush and slide down the dunes to get to this wild stretch of beach. He was here when Sol Kerzner bought the land from the Bantustan government, to develop the Wild Coast Sun, and his family were among the many local people forcibly removed to make way for the gambling mecca by the sea. He’s philosophical about it though, and he’s made the most of the opportunities afforded him in the new South Africa – emerging as an entrepreneur and enthusiastic guardian of the local environment.

Bennie’s guided walk is 4.2 kms, along the beach and back again. He casually mentioned to our group that the walk takes between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how much time you want to spend looking at things. About 15 minutes into our walk, he noted that it can even take up to 3 hours, if people are very curious… Our little group of six had the beach entirely to ourselves, and we were very curious indeed.
There was a lot to see. Bennie showed us silicified tree trunks, washed on shore millions of years ago, with long fat worms fossilised inside them. Some of these trees are up to 5 metres long, and with roots dangling in the air. Over the centuries, they’ve turned to grey-black silica. Like the rocks around them, they’re covered in mussels and barnacles and scuttling crabs. But stop and look for a moment, and their tree-trunk shape and texture is unmistakable. Depending on the angle of the tree trunk when it washed ashore, it would have been more or less vulnerable to erosion by the waves. Those that landed with an east-north-east orientation are best preserved, while others have gradually hollowed out over time. We spent a while exploring one enormous trunk that is completely hollow inside – little round holes along the top allow one to peer inside to a quiet, dark, underwater world, neatly contained within the tree.
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Bennie took us to ‘dentist’s rock’ – his name for a partially submerged rock-shelf with a particularly rich collection of fossilised shark’s teeth. He pointed out three teeth in a section of rock about two metres square. They look exactly like any shark’s tooth that you might find at the bottom of the ocean, except that they’re deeply wedged into the rock, they’re a dark silver-grey, they’re as smooth as polished gem stones (they’re still extremely sharp), and they’re millions of years old. They’re also more or less invisible if you don’t know where to look. Bennie also pointed out a shoulder blade which he reckons belonged to a dinosaur – it sounds fanciful, but judging by the giant clam fossils in the vicinity, there were once some pretty enormous creatures living in this area.

DSCN1100 (768x1024)We walked a little way up the beach, away from the sea, to what looked like a fairly random spot in the sand. Bennie crouched down and started scooping the sand away with his hands. Soon, the hole he was digging starting to fill with water, and then, as he scooped away some more, there appeared a giant submerged ammonite fossil, about 50cm in diameter. It’s beautifully preserved. To stare down at it, nestled in the sand, affords a privileged glimpse of ancient times.
Walking along the dune-side of the beach, we were in the shade of a range of low cliffs, up to 20 metres high. These contain hard layers of rock alternating with fine-grained silt. Over time, the waves have pounded at the base of the cliffs, forming substantial caves.
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Bennie pointed out the fossilised remains of giant clams, long extinct, and the outline of a massive sea turtle, its head still discernible in the impression left behind in the rock. He also explained that several of the bigger caves have been inhabited at various times over the centuries, some by parties of shipwrecked sailors trying to make their way up the coast to civilisation.

It doesn’t seem a terrible place to land up – there’s a clear mountain stream trickling down the front of the caves, a forest behind, and the bountiful sea ahead. Of course, we only had to walk for half an hour to get back to civilisation, and air conditioning.
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If you’re ever on South Africa’s south coast, and need a break from the crowds, call Bennie, and take a walk on the wild side.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s


I imagine that a great many people have seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s at some point, and enjoyed it as an iconic Audrey Hepburn movie, but have never read the book.  To misquote Roald Dahl (from his retelling of Cinderella): I guess you think you know this story. You don’t.  The real one’s much more… sincere.

The book, a novella of about 100 pages, tells a compact, sensitive and compelling tale.  It’s far more touching, genuine and believable than the celluloid version.  It’s not about a couple of gigolos, nor is about neighbours falling in love.  Indeed, the book details only two relationships with real depth of feeling – one between a quick, bright girl and her slow, lumbering brother, and another, acknowledged too late, between the girl and a cat with no name.

The girl is Holly Golightly, a young lady of beauty, charm, and constrained circumstances.  She has an independent spirit and a unique way of looking at the world.  She’s flighty, flippant, and a huge flirt, but she also has strong (though quirky) moral convictions, and she remains true to them.  In the words of her would-be Hollywood agent, ‘she isn’t a phoney because she’s a real phoney.  She believes all this crap she believes.’

Her story is told by a neighbour, a young man who lives in the flat above.  He’s intrigued by Holly long before he meets her – he hears her coming and going at odd hours, catches occasional glimpses of her in glamorous settings around town, and keeps tabs on the esoteric content of her rubbish-bin.  When they eventually meet, and strike up a tentative friendship, he finds her outrageous, disconcerting, and lovely.

Holly’s story is not so different from Cinderella’s.  Admittedly there’s no fairy godmother – Holly alone has dragged herself out of the dust and despair of her Hicksville past, and reinvented herself as a magnet for New York’s most eligible bachelors.  She’s without any ties in the world, with the exception of her brother Fred, and is entirely self-reliant.

With youth and beauty to commend her, and oodles of charm and guile, she’s leaping up the social ladder and reaching for happiness (and a nice big house, with a spare room for Fred).  Finding a wealthy husband is the only respectable option open to her, but she’s not the least bit mercenary.  Instead, she’s an odd blend of naivety and wiliness.  And she’s also not nearly as morally compromised as her neighbours suspect.  She’s looking for someone to commit to – and she’s quite adept at maintaining arm’s length while sifting through the options.  She sincerely believes she can learn to love just about anyone, just as long as they’re rich.

Holly is a girl of big dreams, and she has the determination and the guts to make them happen.  She’s inherently loveable, despite her flaws, and a lot less shallow than she intends to be.  She’s courageous, clever and unconventional.  She’s not exactly an icon for feminism, but her lust for life is inspirational.

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Book Review: Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities provides a window into the terror and madness of the French Revolution. It immerses the reader in the abject poverty, hopelessness and powerlessness of the French working classes. Men and women scrabble in the mud to suck spilt wine from filthy cobbled streets, while the Monsignor sips hot chocolate and toys with his courtiers. A child is trampled under the wheels of a speeding coach, her death a momentary inconvenience to the Marquis galloping home. Dickens vividly presents the brutality and oppression that make the case for revolution incontrovertible. But once the embers of rebellion start smoulder, the fire soon rages out of control, and things get very messy indeed. The descent into mob justice and bloodlust is rapid and horrifying.

Dickens traces the journey from oppression, through righteous rebellion, to madness and carnage, through the life of an Englishman, and the exiled French family he adopts as his own. Jarvis Lorry is a banker, an elderly bachelor, a man of business who keeps his head down and does his duty. His employer sends him to Paris to retrieve a former client, Dr Manette, and bring him to safety in England. Manette, a citizen of France, has just been released from 18 years in the Bastille. Lorry settles Dr Manette and his young daughter Lucie in London, sees Dr Manette restored to the distinguished physician he once was, and over the years becomes part of the family. In time, Lucie marries Charles Darnay, a French emigrant who has forfeited his aristocratic birth right to pursue a more meritocratic lifestyle in England. Their close family circle prospers in London, and Paris and its revolutionary rumblings seems distant and remote.

It’s all too close, however. In a wine shop in St Antoine, Ernest Defarge and his formidable wife, having patiently laid the groundwork for revolution, now lead the blood-thirsty mobs through the streets, wreaking vengeance and lopping off heads. As the madness reaches its peak, Fate contrives to deposit Lorry, Charles, Dr Manette and Lucie back in Paris. Charles is immediately taken prisoner. His incarceration throws his family and friends into the heart of the turbulence. Every day sees more prisoners trundled off to La Guillotine. Injustice remains pervasive with the revolutionaries in charge – guilt or innocence is decided on the whim of a vengeful mob.

Fortunately, the best of human emotion is also on display. It’s exemplified in the selfless devotion between Dr Manette and Lucie, in the quiet courage and loyalty of Lorry, the bravery and fortitude of Darnay, and in Sydney Carton, the secret hero of the book. Sydney’s role seems predestined. It’s as if all his wasted years were merely bringing him to this moment of sublime sacrifice. His heroic and audacious act transcends the brutality and madness all around him, and allows us to believe that goodness, and justice, will eventually be restored.

A Tale of Two Cities is much more than a story about a particular place and time. It renders a powerful picture of the best and worst of human nature, and sounds an ominous warning that resonates across the centuries:
“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.”

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, disempowered and impoverished populations have risen up against their oppressors. While the guillotine is thankfully consigned to history, the macabre spectacle of Gaddafi’s death and the celebrations that followed is not very far off la Carmagnole.

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Book Review: Ann Patchett’s ‘Bel Canto’

Bel Canto is devastating and beautiful. It is exquisitely written, sucking you into the story from the very first page. It is a tale of hopelessness, humanity, empathy, and love. In a desperately poor and brutalized country, where citizens are abducted by the army in broad daylight, people have been driven into the jungle, and armed revolution seems the only alternative to a lifetime of intimidation. Circumstances have turned ordinary men into terrorists and children into killers. For these individuals, the revolution is everything. When a meticulously planned mission to kidnap the president goes terribly wrong, 60 lives take a wildly unexpected turn. Instead of nabbing the president and melting back to the jungle, a small band of terrorists is trapped in a sprawling mansion, with globally powerful chief executives and diplomats as their hostages. We’re told right at the start that the terrorists won’t make it out alive. What we don’t anticipate is how their deaths will break our hearts.

The story takes place entirely inside the vice-president’s mansion. Like the terrorists and the hostages, we the readers are locked inside the house, unaware of what’s happening on the other side of the enormous wall, unconnected to the diplomatic wrangling and military planning that must be taking place. As the days and weeks of the siege roll on, we come to know the individuals inside, terrorists and hostages alike. We are privy to their thoughts, hopes and fears. Executives and vice presidents are simply men, with infinite quantities of free time on their hands. We witness their confusion as their former lives fade into insignificance, and life becomes nothing but the here and now. The only woman among the hostages is an internationally renowned opera singer. She makes captivity bearable, even appealing, with her sensational voice. Music becomes a shared language, easing the tedium of captivity, calming frayed nerves, and binding together a disparate group of multiple nationalities and languages into a strangely cohesive and functional unit.

The terrorists reveal themselves as complex, sympathetic individuals, for the most part young teenagers. We realize the exceptional people they may have become, if only circumstances had been different. Cesar, an acne-scarred child-soldier, is an outrageously talented opera singer. Carmen is a beautiful young girl with a knack for languages. Ishmael is a gangly 14 year old desperately in need of a dad. But hopes and dreams will come to nothing for this small group of revolutionaries, and for a whole country of desperately poor, powerless people.

The terrorists’ deaths come suddenly, violently, without warning. It’s all over in an instant, leaving shock and despair. With one tragic exception, the hostages walk free. We barely have time to absorb the terrible climax of the siege before we’re pulled away, back to the real world, just as the hostages are. But it’s too soon. Fifteen people, some of whom we care about a great deal, are dead, and human relationships that evolved in captivity are scattered and gone. The siege is over, but the terror persists. The book’s last two pages, in a sundrenched street in a pretty Italian town, evoke the choking fear and panic and that will always haunt those who survived the ordeal.

The story is desperately sad, not least because of the inevitability of its tragic ending. Governments will crush peasant revolutionaries, poor orphans from the jungle won’t become world famous opera singers, and ‘real life’ with all its pressures and compromises will prevail. But it’s also about compassion, and our ability to understand and care about each other across seemingly insurmountable boundaries. That, together with the beauty of Ann Patchett’s writing, makes it a must-read.

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Book Review: Michael Chabon’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the epic tale of fifteen years in the lives of Joe and Sam, boy geniuses and would-be heroes. Their story is interlaced with quirky period detail. References to music, people, sporting events and brand-names recreate the atmosphere of 1940s. Celebrities, from movie stars to first ladies, grace the pages with cameo appearances. Frenetic, glamorous New York, and the grandeur and omnipresence of the Empire State building, is the centre of the action. But as we travel back and forth through the passage of time, we’re also transported to the claustrophobic oppressiveness of Nazi occupied Eastern Europe, the inhospitable ice-scape of Alaska, and the genteel suburbia of Long Island’s south shore.

New York, nonetheless, is the centre of the magic. The comic book superhero has just been born, and is already enjoying a golden age. Young men with limited prospects but big imaginations are suddenly finding that anything is possible.

Sam and Joe are two such men. As they spring from the page they are instantly human, believable, likeable, courageous, and fragile. Through a combination of talent, initiative, bravado, and fortuitous timing, they turn themselves from hard-luck nobodies into rising young stars. Success comes easily – but proves to be sadly insubstantial. This is after all 1940, and while it’s wonderful to make lots of money by creating top-selling comic books, it does nothing to stave off the impending doom enveloping Europe, and particularly Joe’s home town of Prague.

Escape and transformation are the novel’s central themes – and the obsessive drivers of Joe and Sam’s respective dreams and ambitions.

Joe is plagued by guilt and a sense of impotence – he has been saved and his family has not, and with every day that passes his chances of securing their escape are diminished. As he battles against faceless bureaucracy, and a mounting sense of despair, he is driven to increasingly desperate acts. Escapistry has always been a core component of his life. His erstwhile mentor, Kornblum, feared that his “final feat of auto-liberation was all too foreseeable.” Now, wrenched from his home and driven by grief, rage, and desperation, Joe tangles with catastrophe at several points in the novel. He more than once places himself in snatching distance of death, but life hangs on to him, whether he wishes it or not. For a brief while, it seems that Rosa’s love might save him from his despair and offer him hope and safety. But tragedy intervenes, and Joe escapes the temptation of happiness, choosing exile and isolation instead.

Sammy cherishes his own dreams of escape. His “caterpillar schemes” are directed at making enough money to transform his life, and the lives of those he cares about, into something much grander and more impressive. His attempts to liberate himself – from poverty, conventionality, and mediocrity – meet with mixed fortune. He achieves wealth and fame, and all the outward trappings of success, at least for a short while. But he is remains firmly tied by the bonds of prejudice. Apart from his first and only brief, bright love affair, he refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality. He chooses instead a half-life, in which he and Rosa unite in their mutual loss of Joe. It’s a devastating choice, and the magnitude of his loss becomes slowly apparent to him over time. Only right at the end of the novel, following Joe’s unexpected and dramatic reappearance, and a vitriolic and very public attack on his morals at a Senate Sub-Committee hearing, does Sam finally find the courage to explore who he really is.

Chabon provides the reader with small clues and premonitions throughout the story. From the first page of the novel, we know that Joe and Sam are going to take the comic world by storm and make a name for themselves. But just when Joe and Rosa’s happiness seems to be secured, we are told, with devastating clarity, that it’s all about to fall apart – and we read with a sense of culminating horror as it does exactly that. By jumping forward a little in time before going back to the critical moments of the story, Chabon builds our sense of suspense and dread.

Thankfully, Chabon is ultimately kind, to his characters who have been through so much, and to the reader who so desperately wants them to re-discover happiness and set their past sorrows to rights. He acknowledges that life is complicated and messy and never turns out quite as planned, but nonetheless grants Joe, Sam and Rosa the chance to make the best of it.

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Book Review: R.D. Blackmoore’s Lorna Doone

Lorna Doone was written 140 years ago, and is set 340 years in the past. Its pace and style is very different to that of a modern novel. It is gentle and slow, and even a little ponderous in places.

The thread of adventure weaves through the story, and there are moments of personal danger and daring to take our breath away. But our narrator is somewhat self-indulgent, and happily allows himself to wander down the more tangential pathways of memory. He provides us with lyrical descriptions of side-stories and backdrops, when what we really want is to get back to the exploits of our heroic young couple and how they will vanquish the dastardly Doones.

The novel requires us to be patient. Our narrator has an excellent tale to tell, but he tells it at his own pace. We have to adjust our expectations and bear with him.

Blackmore was a product of the Romantic Age, and his prose may seem overly sentimental in places to the modern reader. John, in the rapture of new love, is rather prone to gushing. His fearlessness in pursuit of his love feels rather like recklessness at times. But he is after all a huge, strong man, confident of his ability to prevail against all comers, and we can’t help admiring him for it.

Some of the concepts and presumptions of the novel are difficult for a modern reader to accept. There is the idea that the Doones, by virtue of their nobility, are above the law, able to rape and pillage without reprisal; they are of high birth and their victims are only simple country folk. Lorna’s ill-fated cousin, Alan Brandir, notes acerbically that “trade alone can spoil our blood; robbery purifies it.”

There is also the absence of any authority to whom those who have been wronged may turn. Short of persuading the neighbourhood’s farmers and ploughboys to take up arms and rise against the Doones, at huge personal risk, the people of Exmoor have little choice but to get along as best they can with their tormentors, while the threat to their lives and homes remains ever present. Indeed, they are even willing to leave offerings at the Doone Gate, in the hope that violent attacks may thus be made less frequent.

And then there is John’s rather condescending attitude toward women. He casually observes on several occasions that they are “the weaker vessels”, and that it is best to limit their opportunities for independent thought. Despite being only a few years older than his sisters, as the man of the house he is able to order them about, chastise them and at times even bully them. In his favour, however, John is clearly deeply committed to the support and care of his mother and sisters, and indeed to Lorna. But his attitudes are inevitably shaped by the time, in which the best a woman could hope for was to make a good marriage and have lots of children. Lizzie, in her disdain for romance and her love of books, is indeed rather revolutionary for a country girl.

The novel is set against the historical backdrop of the last years of King Charles II’s reign, the tensions between Catholic and Protestant, Court and country, the short-lived Monmouth rebellion, and the beginning of the reign of King James II. This history is intricately woven into the novel. Kings, judges, courtiers and revolutionaries bump up against John Ridd and company. Our fictional heroes and villains take part in real battles and political intrigues. There are several ironic references to historical people and events. While a reader well versed in the history of 1600s England would catch the references, the rest of us might not. While this doesn’t necessarily detract from the novel, we do sometimes miss the cleverness and wit with which certain events are alluded to.

In spite of the venerable age of the book, and the very different period in which it is set, Lorna Doone nonetheless remains an easy and entertaining read. It is a tale of adventure, star-crossed love, and the struggle of a good man against evil, that is timelessly appealing. It provides an opportunity to escape entirely to a time long since vanished from the world, where the pace of life is no quicker than the fastest King’s messenger, honour is everything, and a strong man is able to take charge of his fate and triumph over seemingly impossible odds.

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