No 5: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
So much was written about this novel when published last year, and then it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year and even more got written. I acquired my copy last summer – put it in a pile and forgot about it until this summer!
As the novel opens, Martha is attempting to make small talk at a wedding party with a stranger…
I turned to consider my husband, at that moment trying to fish an invisible object out of his glass with one finger, then looked back at the woman and said ‘Patrick’s sort of like the sofa that was in your house growing up. Its existence was just a fact. You never wondered where it came from because you can’t remember it not being there. Even now, if it’s still there, nobody gives it any conscious thought.’
You can immediately sense that our narrator Martha has a unique voice, full of sardonic wit. She’ll definitely be unlikeable at times and the saintly Patrick will love her but tear his hair out as Martha goes from one crisis to another in her messy life, but we’ll be on her side through and through.
Martha has suffered mental illness since she was seventeen, she’s now nearing forty. She’s had treatment off and on, but none of the experts managed to tie down her condition. Patrick is her second husband: after a brief disastrous first one, she realised that the true love of her life had been around for years – Patrick had arrived one Christmas as a refugee from boarding school with her cousin Oliver, and had become a fixture in their lives.
But Patrick has finally had enough of caring for Martha, he needs some time to himself. Pregnant again, sister Ingrid has also disowned her. So Martha is forced back home to her parents to consider her life and loves, her mind, her career, her dysfunctional family, her own childlessness, her husband and not forgetting her mid-life crisis – that’s a long list to consider.
That Mason manages to convey all this drama with such wit makes for an exhilarating read. All the characters are perfectly formed, and the dialogue between them was snappy and replete with little in-jokes; Ingrid is a particularly brilliant character. It wouldn’t be spoiling things to say that there is definite hope for Martha. Things aren’t tied up neatly, leaving room for reader speculation as to what happens next, and that’s as it should be.
Mason was inspired to write her novel in this style by reading Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge (reviewed here) on holiday (you can read more in Mason’s ‘The Books of My Life’ interview in The Guardian). If you enjoy Stibbe’s blend of humour and pathos, you’ll love this novel, although it is a bit darker. With Martha’s first-person narration there is also a comparison to be drawn with Fleabag.
Source: Own copy. W&N paperback, 347 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
No. 6 – To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwaite
This was our Book Group’s choice last month – as the first decade in our Big Jubillee Read. Everyone read it, everyone enjoyed it, but it did provoke a lot of conversation when we met to discuss it. Everyone knew about the 1967 film, but although none of us had seen it, we could only imagine Sidney Poitier as Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Braithwaite in the novel, with Lulu as one of the teenagers he taught – just look at that tagline on the poster!
I hadn’t realised before I read it that the book is a memoir, published in 1959, so nearly a decade before the film. Braithwaite, from British Guiana, (now Guyana) came to Britain as many Caribbean men did, to volunteer during WWII, in the RAF in his case. Afterwards he studied for a Masters in Physics at Cambridge, but found getting a job impossible once they knew he was Black.
I had forgotten about my black face during those years. I saw it daily yet never noticed its colour, I was an airman in flying kit while on His Majesty’s business, smiled at, encouraged, welcomed by grateful civilians in bars or on the street, who saw not me, but the uniform and its relationship to the glorious, undying Few. Yes, I had forgotten about my skin when I had so eagerly discussed my post-war prospects with the Careers Officer and the Appointments people…
Someone suggested he try teaching, as they were desperate for teachers in the East End of London. Thus, he finally found a job at the tough Greenslade School where he is thrown in at the deep end with Class 4 – fourteen-year-olds in their last year of school. He begins by assessing their (mostly below average) reading ability.
‘Jane Purcell, will you read, please.’
The girl who rose to comply was fair-haired and slim, with a pair of heavy breasts which swung loosely under a thin jumper, evidently innocent of any support. I wondered at the kind of parent who would allow a girl to go out so sloppily attired.
You couldn’t write that nowadays without getting into trouble, but I think that at the time, he felt he had to describe what he saw! It does take him a while to get to know the kids, but by instilling some manners into his classroom while encouraging their curiosity he brings them around and really gets to understand them and where they come from, and even takes them by tube on a school trip to the V&A Museum.
Most of the staff, well the progressive Headmaster, Mr Florian and the female teachers are accepting of him too. He gets some strong advice from Miss Clintridge (known as Clinty, played by Patricia Routledge in the film). Later he begins courting Miss Blanchard, Gillian. He has rather a tricky evening meeting her parents. The conversation with her father is particularly barbed under the friendly overtones:
‘I’m going to hand it to you straight Ricky. when we first heard that Gillian was seeing you, her mother and I talked about it, but we decided not to interfere, hoping that it was just one of those things and would blow over.’
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! I’m thinking Natasha Brown’s Assembly here, even if it may have been more overt in the 1950s. We all felt that the elements of racial prejudice that Ricky experiences were authentic and still shocking.
As for the teaching, to turn round a class of tearaway teenagers in such a short time, seemed a little more unlikely, and maybe he painted this side of the book with slightly rose-tinted glasses.
There’s no denying that this is a super read and deserving of its place on the Big Jubilee Read list. A good one for book group discussion too. Braithwaite went on to write several other books before becoming a diplomat. An interesting man.
Source: TBR. Vintage paperback, 185 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.