Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Suite Française’ – Irène Némirovsky

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I picked up Suite Française in search of a heart-wrenching tale of love, loss, and war, and although I did get some of that, I think that what really makes Suite Française an emotional experience is the story behind it, not the story in it. As a book, it reads beautifully, but the structure and story itself didn’t sit right with me at times, but it serves as a marvellous insight into life during the French Occupation in the Second World War, as does the story of Némirovsky and her novel’s publication.

Suite Française was originally planned as a series of five stories narrating the lives of ordinary French citizens living in the Second World War under German occupation. However in 1942, about halfway through the creation of her novel, the author Irène Némirovsky, a Jew, was arrested and died in Auschwitz. The notebook containing this story was preserved by her daughters, and almost sixty years later in 1998, the story that she had written was published. Although I expected this novel to be a passionate love story, a sort of Birdsong-esque novel, I was surprised to find that this was much more. What Némirovsky accomplished was to create a looking glass into life in provincial France during the Occupation, an insight into the minds and lives of its people as they tried to resist Germany’s influence in their lives, while having to live alongside their German occupiers.

AN55349772Mandatory-CreditbSuite Française is split into two novels – the two that the author had completed before her arrest. The first, ‘Storm in June’ follows a group of panicked Parisians as they flee the city under threat of invasion. These characters range from the wealthy Péricand family, the author Gabriel Corte and his mistress, and Maurice and Jean Michaud who must flee Paris on foot after being abandoned by their employer and planned travelling companion, and who are grieving for their son who is missing. The second part of the novel, ‘Dolce’, is set in a small French village a year after the first, and focuses on the Angellier household. In this house, Lucile, whose husband is a prisoner of war, is living with her mother-in-law. When a German officer, Bruno von Falk is billeted to their house, Lucile struggles as she begins to fall in love with the officer. Elsewhere in the village, tensions between the French and Germans rise as Benoît, a farmer, takes an intense dislike to the German in his house.

Although I enjoyed the various different characters, I don’t think that the structure of the book flowed well at all. For the first part of the book, ‘Storm in June’, I found it hard to keep reading and frequently grew bored. The characters were given one chapter before moving on to a different, unrelated character, as they aimlessly travelled through the French countryside. If these characters stood out clearer in my mind as human beings, I may have been more interested in their stories, but instead Storm in June felt like a mess. On the other hand, I couldn’t put down this book when I was reading ‘Dolce’. It was far more unified as it focused on a smaller group of characters, their stories, and relationships, rather than hopping around different stories. Rather, with ‘Dolce’ I felt invested in the story I was reading, and genuinely cared about where it would go. Once I had struggled through the first half of this book, everything was fine.

Suite-Francaise-CoverWhat I really enjoyed about Suite Française – or to be precise, ‘Dolce’ in Suite Française – was Némirovsky’s commentary on the situation at hand. The passages where she described the French and Germans living side by side were fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed her questioning of their differences. At the end, when the German troops are ordered to move on, there is a passage which highlights the complexities and conflict in the relationships between these people; they had lived together for months, had shared stories of their lives, had made friends, but now they were at war again. The relationship between Lucile and Bruno is another example of this. As they grow closer, they deny that there are any differences between them, and you believe that they can defy all odds, but it becomes tragically clear that the fact they are on opposing sides is still a barrier.

Lucile and Bruno’s relationship was beautifully written, although I feel that it lacked passion and emotion. Although Némirovsky described the characters discussing the issue of their nationalities, and suggested that they had overcome their differences, I didn’t understand why they loved each other. In fact, from one scene to the next, Lucile was suddenly exclaiming her love for Bruno with no explanation of how their relationship developed to this point. It seems unrealistic to me that their love simply grew out of a few conversations – especially when these conversations were not written for us to read. If this relationship had been a little more believable, the story itself would have felt more emotional to read, and the ending would have been even better.

Overall, Suite Française was an interesting book, and at times somewhat exciting, but overall I think it was a little too soft. I would have liked for there to be more tension, and to have felt more of a connection with the characters. On the other hand, Némirovsky’s description of life in Occupied France was fantastic; it simply would have been the icing on top of the cake if the smaller details and the lives of individual characters had been equally well explored.

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Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Go Set A Watchman’ – Harper Lee

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55 years after audiences first met the characters of Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, and more in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Harper Lee’s new (old) novel Go Set A Watchman has hit the shelves. This marks the first time in a long time that I have been so excited for a book to be published that I preordered it, and I awaited the book’s arrival eagerly. Although I don’t think Go Set A Watchman is as moving as its predecessor and despite the story being extremely simple, I did enjoy the book and the opportunity to revisit characters like Scout.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 22.03.29Go Set A Watchman is set in 1950s in Maycomb, that is, two decades after the story in To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout now goes by her proper name Jean Louise and lives in New York but has returned to Maycomb to visit her elderly father, Atticus. However, while staying in Maycomb, Jean Louise’s saintly view of her father is shattered as she learns that he is a member of a racist group opposing the end of segregation. Over the course of Go Set A Watchman, Jean Louise grapples with this revelation, and must decide whether she continues following her father’s word as gospel or stands firm in her own view. In other words, whether she is able to stand firm in her convictions knowing that the man she most admires disagrees with her.

Although Go Set A Watchman sounds like a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – and in a way, is just that – it is more of a draft/alternative. There are mere references to what would become central storylines in To Kill a Mockingbird, like Tom Robinson’s trial, which has one vital difference in this book. Furthermore, an equally vital component of To Kill A Mockingbird, Boo Radley, is not even mentioned in this book. That means that, for those readers like me who were eagle-eyed and waiting for references of what happened to certain characters or to read about Jean Louise’s memories again, there would have been some disappointment. Even more upsetting though, was what felt like the mere seconds that was given to Calpurnia’s reappearance. Calpurnia, who is such a personality in To Kill A Mockingbird, barely spoke, and let’s not even talk about Jem. However, there were some new characters like Henry, or Hank, and some new stories that entertain. I particularly enjoyed the story about Hank, Scout, and her ‘falsies’, even if it wasn’t really a part of the main story, it contributed and took me back to Scout’s familiar narrative.

Harper-Lee-UKAnother aspect of Go Set A Watchman that you may have heard of recently regards what feels like changes being made to characters that go right to the core of how we see them. For one, Scout, our dear Scout, is no longer ‘Scout’ but now Jean Louise, the name she shoved aside as a child. Her spunky, rebellious attitude has faded, and Scout – I mean – Jean Louise now wears dresses. The closest we even get to dungarees in Go Set A Watchman is slacks. However, to be fair, people do change and so I accept Scout’s superficial changes because at heart, Jean Louise is still our Scout. Her perspective in life is exactly what I would have expected her to grow up thinking. She is frequently referred to as ‘colour-blind’ and struggles to live in a world and with people who aren’t, and struggles to deal with the realisation that the people closest to her and who made her who she is are now revealed to be different to what she thought they were.

On the other hand, both ours and Jean Louise’s vision of Atticus is torn apart in this book. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus is different to all the racist, prejudiced people of Maycomb. Scout in the narrator of the story but Atticus is the hero. In this book,  Jean Louise stumbles upon Atticus attending a Citizens’ Council meeting in the Maycomb Court, the same place where as a child she saw her courage defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman even though he knew he’d been “licked” before the case began, and introduce and listen to white supremacist speakers campaigning against the work of the NAACP, the end of segregation, and the right to vote of black Americans. Although passages such as reading extracts from the speech, or hearing Atticus’ remarks about why he wants to keep segregation, were sickening, Harper Lee wrote the book so masterfully that I felt the same betrayal as Jean Louise. We are made to understand Jean Louise so deeply that we feel like retching and screaming and fighting with her, and that, to me, is a sign of brilliant writing. In fact, many writers cannot achieve that same level of connection between their readers and characters, but I felt as if my own hero had stabbed me in the back.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 22.06.20Recently, there has been much whispering about Go Set A Watchman and whether this portrayal of Atticus as a racist will ruin the experience of To Kill A Mockingbird for readers. In response, I believe that this is a mistaken belief. When I first began reading the passages where Atticus is shown to be a racist, I too feared whether I could ever enjoy the story again, but when I reached the scenes where Jean Louise discusses her feelings with everybody from Hank, her Uncle Jack, to Atticus himself, I felt like Harper Lee was taking us on a journey of discovery with Jean Louise. The main journey in this book is not about how Atticus ‘became’ racist, but is about Jean Louise’s journey to independence and confidence in her own beliefs. As Uncle Jack puts it, Jean Louise must destroy the vision of her father as a God in order to know herself, and must find her own sense of morality.

Still, I think that Go Set A Watchman also makes an interesting point about racism in society. Atticus is largely a good guy, at least in To Kill A Mockingbird, but in Go Set A Watchman, he is the same man. He has done the same great things, he is loved by many, but he holds these prejudiced views. Uncle Jack makes the point that Atticus has always lived by the letter of the law, but I feel that what Harper Lee may have been pointing out to us is that the law is not enough to put an end to racism and prejudice. Atticus and Jean Louise talk about a slow end to segregation and racism being necessary, but Lee appears to dispute this. We must try to put an end to racism in all parts of society and our lives, not simply relying on the law to do our work for us.

To conclude, which I feel I must do in order to stop myself rambling for days on end, I think Go Set A Watchman is an enjoyable, interesting book and that Harper Lee was truly successful and bringing us into what felt like a close relationship with the characters. I don’t think that Go Set A Watchman would have have been anywhere near as successful as To Kill A Mockingbird if it had been published 55 years ago, and I am thankful that it wasn’t, or we wouldn’t have had all of the beautiful, complex stories that Lee gave us, but as a (sort of) sequel, it works. It works because we can revisit characters and places that we have seen before, and it works because we see Scout undertake another massively significant journey of discovery.

Have you read Go Set A Watchman? What did you think? Comment below.

Other

Unlikeable Main Characters?

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Some characters are undeniably likeable; Lizzie Bennet, Scout Finch, Jo March, Ned Stark. There are some that are almost too nice, these are the ‘Mary Sue’ and ‘Gary Stu’ characters, or the manic pixie dream girls (think Zooey Deschanel, Ferris Bueller and the first bunch of Disney princesses); the characters that authors and scriptwriters try endlessly to force you to like, the Edward Cullens, the Bella Swans.

Everybody loves finding a character that you love. It’s one of the things that people frequently comment on when they describe why they did or did not enjoy a book, a television series, or a movie. But is it a necessity to like the main character in a book that you’re reading?

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 16.54.50There are several shows or books that I have stuck with purely out of love for a particular character. For example, I only stopped watched Mr Selfridge once it became clear that the endearing Agnes Towler would not be returning to the series. But is likability a prerequisite for a good protagonist? Many of the books, shows, and movies I’ve loved have been led by characters that are not all that nice, or who really got on my nerves throughout the course of the story. While reading Great Expectations, I often wished I could jump into Dickens’ world and beat Pip around the head with a bat (but I did love Estella), and there are, of course, the characters that we love to hate (or simply love), like Cersei Lannister. On the other hand, some characters make me want to abandon a story completely. Chloe Winters in ‘Someone Else’s Fairytale’ drove me up the wall with her prejudiced views, and Mary in Downton Abbey is infuriating.

So what’s the difference? Clearly, what decides whether we enjoy spending our time with a character is whether they are well-written, not whether we think they would be nice to have as a friend in real life. We have to feel like we are choosing to like the character, not like we’re being forced to by being shown how amazing and perfect they are.

Downton Abbey S5 The fifth series, set in 1924, sees the return of our much loved characters in the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey. As they face new challenges, the Crawley family and the servants who work for them remain inseparably interlinked. MICHELLE DOCKERY as Lady Mary Crawley. Photographer: Nick Briggs

It’s why we react differently to characters who appear to have many of the same characteristics. It’s why Jane Eyre is not a boring main character despite not being Little Miss Perfect like Cinderella. Mary (Downton Abbey) and Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones) are both cruel, condescending, and selfish, but Mary drives me up the wall and I can’t get enough of Cersei. Although some people like Mary’s cold demeanour, I can’t see the point of it, whereas I understand what motivates Cersei to be the way that she is. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is not a likeable person, but he is interesting enough to entertain us and keep us waiting for the next series (Get a move on, BBC!), in a way that might not be possible if John Watson was the main character, and Sherlock was his ‘sidekick’. Neither Nick nor Amy Dunne from Gone Girl are likeable at all, and yet they both fascinate us and keep us hooked.

What do you think? Should main characters be likeable, or do you have a favourite character who was not likeable at all?