Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book 4 - The Nature of Monsters

By Clare Clark

Master and Commander gave me a taste for British historical fiction, so I thought I’d experience a more female perspective via Clark’s tale of a pregnant village girl who becomes an apothecary’s maid in the teeming metropolis of 18th century London.

Much darker and far less humorous, TNoM is more of a gothic horror story, and quite Dickensian in its account of Eliza Tally’s bleak existence: getting whored out to a landowner’s son by her mother, dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, being sent to London to become a servant at an apothecary, and enduring the cold and rather demeaning treatment from the apothecary’s wife, Mrs. Black, and the lecherous the shop assistant, Edgar.

Although sullen and defiant by nature, Eliza is still a poor outsider stuck in an unknown city without family or commendation. She has very few options but to remain confined in the claustrophobic Black household, and share her duties and sleeping area with Mary, the idiot maidservant. She is also naturally wary of and fascinated by her mysterious master, the oddly disfigured apothecary, Grayson Black:

My master was as present and yet as invisible in the house in Swan-street as God Himself was in church, except that, as Mrs. Black and the frog-voiced parson like to instruct me, God was the one true Light. My master, on the other hand, seemed to me to be composed of darkness, of shadows and locked doors and windowless stairwells and the sour black smoke of extinguished candles.

Since the narrative is interspersed with fragments of Black’s journal entries and letters, you get a pretty clear idea that Grayson Black is a ego-maniacal man whose deep-seated misogyny informs the core of his beliefs and area of study:

My work with the parish women has shown me clearly that the low faculty of imagination that so dominates women is brought most effectively to the fore by the cultivation of such fear. It weakens the solids & fibres of the body, already so much feebler than those of the male, so that they are at their most receptive to impression.

Not to mention whose delusions of grandeur allow him to bully those around him, most especially Mrs.Black:

”Madam, I stand at the threshold of greatness and you threaten me with a debtors’ gaol? I will not be goaded so, do you hear me? Was Mr. Sydenham assailed with petty concerns such as yours? Was Hippocrates?”

At first Eliza thinks that Black will help restore her wayward reputation by getting rid of her child, but little does she know the mad apothecary has other designs, such as subjecting her and Mary to horrifying experiments! When Eliza is sent out to run errands, she slowly befriends the bookseller Mr. Honfleur, and eventually summons the courage to ask him the nature of her master’s work (warning: spoiler ahead!):

“Ah, it is hardly a secret. Your esteemed master writes a treatise… the notion of maternal impression of something close… the effects of strong emotions, fear, desire, and such like, upon the physical form of a foetus… the eminent gentlemen of the Royal Society have long been fascinated with monsters…"

Overall the story is quite compelling and complex without being too dense and over-laden with period detail. Indeed, the prose can be a little overly expository at times as typical of this type of fiction, and Eliza’s articulate inner dialogue doesn’t quite mesh with how an uneducated yet intelligent village girl would think in her head.

Even though the details of Eliza’s living situation can get a bit bogged down with bleak pessimism where most of the characters are motivated by greed, status and/or cruelty, Clark keeps it balanced with enough action, suspense and itty bit of hope to keep me gripped throughout the depressing sections. Plus, the character arc of Eliza starting off as an illiterate, self-centred maidservant who hates the idiot maid Mary and ending up as a sympathetic, street-smart heroine who ends up loving the idiot maid after all was a gradual and convincing enough transition to pull me through to the end. A flawed but satisfying read!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Book 3 – Master and Commander

By Patrick O’Brian

It’s too bad this wasn’t considered a book club pick since four 50-bookers have read it this year so far, and it’s an awesome book. Perhaps it should, mmm?

Despite the common complaint from readers of the constant looking up of nautical terms that filled up the book, I didn’t mind this so much. First, I didn’t bother looking up anything at all, and I still managed to enjoy and appreciate the adventures of Captain Aubrey and his merry 80-odd member crew. Besides I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what a cunt-splice was anyway. And yet the attentive description of ships, especially the lovingly imperfect Sophie, who is like a character in herself, didn’t seem fetishistic at all!

So anyway, since Olman has read it. And June23 has read it. And last but not least, Buzby has read it -- and since we all know M & C has the action, adventure, naval politics and male-bonding that has already won die-hard fans the world over -- I thought instead of writing a standard review, lemme tell you some of my favourite little moments from Master & Commander:

• When Captain Jack Aubrey was just promoted, given charge of the Sophie and made the realization that his new life as master & commander would be a lonely one:

he was no longer one of ‘us’: he was ‘they’. Indeed, he was the immediately-present incarnation of ‘them’. In his tour of the brig he had been surrounded with deference – a respect different in kind from that accorded to a lieutenant, different in kind from that accorded to a fellow human-being: it had surrounded him like a glass bell, quite shutting him off from the ship’s company…

• When Jack was having a bad day, experiencing a non-stop “series of disappointments”, which included

Ellis’ horrible parents had not yet left the island, and he and Stephen had been obliged to undergo their hospitality – the only occasion in his life he had ever seen a half bottle of small white wine divided between four. Disappointments.

• Stephen Maturin not able to lose his frugal habits due to his period of poverty:

With intense mortification he saw that the piece of meat he had hidden at yesterday’s dinner had oozed grease through his handkerchief and his pocket. ‘How wonderfully strange,’ he thought, ‘to be upset by this trifle; yet I am upset.’ He sat down and ate his piece of meat (the eye of mutton chop)…

• Dr Maturin’s various idiosyncratic thoughts and quips about…

…older men of authority:

James Dillon was a delightful being. Now he is closing in. It is odd – will I say heart-breaking? – how cheerfulness goes: gaiety of mind, natural free-springing joy. Authority is its great enemy – the assumption of authority. I know few men over fifty that seem to me entirely human: virtually none who has long exercised authority. The senior post-captains here; Admiral Warne. Shrivelled men (shriveled in essence: not, alas, in belly).

… whether the progeny of an annoying, upper class couple will take after them:

’And having seen the parents I am impatient to see this youth, the fruit of their strangely unattractive loins: will he be a wretched mammothrept? A little corporal?…’

… Captain Aubrey and Lieutenant James Dillon (JA and JD) not quite getting along:

’But I confess that much as I love them, I could wish them both to the Devil, with their high-flown, egocentrical points of honour and their purblind spurring one another to remarkable exploits that may very well end in unnecessary death… There is a systemic flocci-nauci-nihili-pilification of all other aspects of existence that angers me… I have no patience for them. They are strangely immature for men of their age and their position: though, indeed, it is supposed that if they were not, they would not be here – the mature, the ponderate mind does not embark itself upon a man-of-war – is not to be found wandering about the face of the ocean in quest of violence.’

Finally, the many small moments of humour are harder to quantify. But I did get a very good chuckle when JA had to deal with the “infernal bore” of the report of a lowly seaman who committed the unnatural crime of sodomy on a goat. And then Stephen politely declined the offer of goat’s milk for his tea.

Capital! Just capital! A truly excellent book. And to think there are at least 20 more of them in the entire series!