Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradWritten in 1899 Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the story of the narrator Charles Marlow’s journey up the Congo River into the Congo Free State, in the Heart of Africa. Marlow, like Conrad is a sailor, who based the book on his own experiences. The novella explores the themes of imperialism and racism and Conrad draws similarities in the darkness between London “the greatest town on earth” and the Congo. Central to Conrad’s work is the idea that there is little difference between “civilised people” and “savages.” The novella provided the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, with Africa being replaced by Vietnam.

As a young boy Marlow is obsessed with maps and discovering new lands. He embarks on a trading voyage to the middle of the jungle to visit the central character Kurtz who is an ivory trader and commander of the trading post. When Marlow arrives at the central station it is run by the general manager who Marlow describes as an “unwholesome” character. Marlow hears a rumour that Kurtz had been taken ill which makes his journey even more urgent.

The steamship is then attacked by ‘natives’, we later learn on instruction from Kurtz, and Marlow frightens them away by sounding the ships whistle. They arrive at the trading post to find several human heads adorning the fence post. Kurtz is brought out on a stretcher to meet Marlow. The ‘natives’ pour out of the forest to see him as he has become a ‘god-like’ figure. Kurtz has become delirious and with it dangerous. As he descends further into madness, he expresses what Marlow believes is his true opinion of the ‘natives’ that they should “exterminate all the brutes”. Kurtz dies and the darkness that prevails symbolises the evil of imperialism. Marlow is sympathetic to the way the ‘native’ people have been treated but feels powerless to do anything about it. After meeting Kurtz, a very disillusioned Marlow returns to Europe also becoming extremely ill in the process. He visits Kurtz fiancé and to avoid admitting how uncivilised Kurtz has become and to spare her further distress lies about Kurtz final words.

Sometimes a difficult read, the Congo Diary, by way of an introduction, helps to set the context and help the reader understand the significance the novella has in the historical etymology of writers that have explored the West’s exploitation of Africa.

Sarah
Arodene Road Book Group

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

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Swimming Home by Deborah LevyIf a strange girl arrived in your family’s idyllic villa in Nice, wouldn’t you see if you could get your deposit back? This thought clearly did not pass Isabel’s mind. Her curiosity took hold of her when approached with an elusive figure “is it a bear?” who goes by the name of Kitty Finch. Kitty is so elusive that she leaves the reader questioning whether she is mentally ill or, rather a genuine artist. Her presence, which is often naked, brings the book to always be on the brink of chaos; someone goes missing, plot lines are subverted and shock endings.

The decision to let Kitty stay is made by the wife of Joseph, Isabel, and it appears that her choice is an act of dominance to compete with Joseph’s infidelity. While “Isabel recorded and witnessed catastrophes to try and make people remember”, Joseph prefers to use his poetry to make himself forget, perhaps sweeping all of the truths under the carpet.

The formula of a stranger’s arrival destroying a marriage may seem like a traditional plot. However, Levy’s storytelling is allusive, disturbing and elliptical – the story is intimate in detail and crams a lot in in such a small space.

Swimming Home
is told from multiple viewpoints and several generations; exploring both loss and longing by disclosing more about the characters then they are perhaps willing to tell us about themselves. Although the novel has it’s disturbing moment, it is a joy to read and a great novel to really get lost in.

Kate, Brixton Fiction Reading Group 

Last Bus to Coffeeville by J. Paul Henderson

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Last Bus to CoffeevilleWhen the moment for Gene to take Nancy to her desired death in Coffeeville arrives, she is unexpectedly admitted to the secure unit of a nursing home and he is constrained to call upon the help of his two remaining friends: Bob Crenshaw, a man who has been officially dead for 40 years, and Jack Guravitch, a disgraced weatherman in the throes of a midlife crisis. They ‘kidnap’ Nancy and drive to Mississippi in a stolen tour bus once owned by Paul McCartney. Along the way they are joined by a young orphan boy called Eric and an exotic dancer.

A charming, uplifting and profoundly moving debut novel. As depicted on the front cover – a funny story about sad things.
J Paul Henderson entices the reader through a narrative which jumps from the present to personal back stories. His method works incredibly well as a historic and meaningful friendship is depicted through our central characters. The novel surpasses all expectations – it is exciting and imaginative.

As the story unfolds, our mismatched group of friends travel great distances providing some of the best and funniest parts of the story. The group continue to bond throughout and as they grow and develop – they begin to get under the reader’s skin and into your own imagination. The diversity of the group is also an appealing attribute. From an elderly, highly respectable, doctor who is in pursuit of rescuing his old friend to a run-away orphan. Despite these obvious disparities in backgrounds and cultures, the characters all strike up unlikely and heart-warming relationships. As a reader, the companions became mine and was often torn between laughing or crying out loud at their emotional and whirlwind of a journey.

Last Bus to Coffeeville is expertly written with compassion and warmth. Henderson has captured human frailties through a poignant tale, sweeping the reader along in both happiness and unconditional love.

Kate, Brixton Library Reading Group

Murder on the Orient Express by Dame Agatha Christie

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Murder on the Orient Express by Dame Agatha ChristieIn January Carnegie Library Reading Group discussed the classic mystery novel by Dame Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express. Some had already read the novel or watched the film, so already knew “whodunnit”, which impacted the enjoyment of reading it to varying degrees.

Discussion opened with the opinion that the novel was a wonderful member of the murder genre, with an impressive level of detail, “sweet surprises” in the form of almost-missed clues for the reader and a cheeky sense of humour. We found the novel easy to read, and while some enjoyed Christie sharing so much information with us and involving us in the investigation, others found there was too much detail, too much information to assimilate to sort the wheat from the chaff. We probed and tested Christie’s case, but although some found the ending implausible, we couldn’t find any holes or contradictions in the building of it.

We picked on the stereotypes presented in the text: the stiff-lipped Englishman, the impulsive, vociferous Italian, the demanding, wealthy American, etc. Some found this adversely affected their enjoyment as characters felt one-dimensional, whilst others felt Christie was poking fun at the prejudices that existed at the time, holding them up for our scrutiny and to laugh at. We enjoyed the character of Hercule Poirot, the great little detective with the egg-shaped head and elegant moustaches, though we had to put down his unerring ability to correctly infer and ask the perfect question at the perfect time down to his genius.

We were impressed by Christie’s ability to weave such a detailed plot, keeping all the threads straight in her mind, even if they got tangled up in ours. One member provided some very interesting and pertinent historical context for us, revealing that the case the story was based on, the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in the USA in 1932, caused huge national outcry and upset, so much so that it became a presidential issue and ultimately resulted in the drafting of Lindbergh Law, where kidnapping became a felony under the Federal Kidnapping Act. We agreed it was very smart of Christie to tap into the public feeling of the time (Murder was published in 1934) and provide those readers who knew of the real case with an outcome they would have deemed just. Another member confirmed that Christie’s description of the American upper-class household in which each of the staff hailed from a different corner of the globe was an accurate portrait and was likely to have been what prompted Poirot’s question of whether the suspects had spent time in the US. It was added that Christie made regular trips on the Orient Express, and that the descriptions of the carriages and how it operated would have been accurate.

Overall, we were impressed by the high level of accurate detail in the text and the knitting of it all together. Although many didn’t find it a book that would change one’s life, it is a fine example of the craft of mystery writing and we enjoyed being transported to a different age. Closing comments were: no character development, no guilt, very entertaining, really enjoyed, excellent craft and creation of mystery novel, on its own terms a masterpiece, clever plot, clever but didn’t draw you in, can’t compare with great literature, has its own charm, safe and predictable, loved Poirot noticing what others and the reader didn’t, of its time, pace unsteady, at times colourful and pacey, at times flatlined and conclusion came too late.

We scored Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie 7 out 10, with a range of 5-10.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

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Journey by Moonlight by Antal SzerbAnxious to please his bourgeois father, Mihaly has joined the family firm in Budapest. Pursued by nostalgia for his bohemian youth, he seeks escape in marriage to Erzsi, not realising that she has chosen him as a means to her own rebellion. On their honeymoon in Italy, Mihaly ‘loses’ his bride at a provincial station and embarks on a chaotic and bizarre journey that leads him finally to Rome.

Written in 1937, ‘Journey by Moonlight’ is one of the best-known works of Antal Szerb, a Hungarian scholar, who died in a concentration camp a few years after the book was published. Among other themes, death and suicide are explored, but the tone of the book remains light and ironic. The writing has a slightly bizarre, surreal quality which reminded us of ‘Master and Margarita’ by Mihail Bulgakov that we’d read last year. We particularly enjoyed the passages depicting pre-war Italian countryside and cities.

Even though the action is set in very turbulent times, the political situation is not explicitly mentioned. The focus is on exploring the characters and their complex motivations and there are some deep observations on human nature and relationships.

We spent quite a lot of time talking about Mihaly, who is trying to escape his predictable, comfortable life. Some of our readers ‘wanted to shake him’ and described him as ‘neurotic, frustrating and self-indulgent’. On his holiday adventure, which culminates in a nervous breakdown, Mihaly keeps meeting friends from his youth. We found this and a few other coincidences a bit stretched. We were also slightly perplexed by the characters’ choices and their dubious sense of morality. Some of us thought the ending of the story, where Mihaly and Erzsi are confronted with reality, was banal and quite disappointing.

While some of us enjoyed this book, for others it took a long time to get into. Overall, we rated ‘Journey by Moonlight’ 6.5/10 on average.

Magda, Waterloo Library Reading Group

Love Your Life by Sophie Kinsella

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Love Your Life by Sophie KinsellaCall Ava romantic, but she thinks love should be found in the real world, not on apps that filter men by height, job, or astrological sign. She believes in feelings, not algorithms. So after a recent breakup and dating app debacle, she decides to put love on hold and escapes to a remote writers’ retreat in coastal Italy. She’s determined to finish writing the novel she’s been fantasizing about, even though it means leaving her close-knit group of friends and her precious dog, Harold, behind.
At the retreat, she’s not allowed to use her real name or reveal any personal information. When the neighbouring martial arts retreat is cancelled and a few of its attendees join their small writing community, Ava, now going by “Aria,” meets “Dutch,” a man who seems too good to be true. The two embark on a baggage-free, whirlwind love affair but as one mishap follows another, it seems while they love each other, they just can’t love each other’s lives. Can they reconcile their differences to find one life together?

Let me start by saying that as a group we love Sophie Kinsella and personally she is one of my favourite authors. However, this book was pretty awful, there are so many flaws in the story that we as the readers were irritated by.

Let’s start with the problem of Ava, as a main character is not well thought through; she is delusional and seems to live in a dream world. The fact that she went on a date with someone just because she liked the eyes on the profile picture is just ridiculous. Also, we would love to know how much her jobs pay her because we don’t understand how she can afford a mortgage or rent in London and manage to pay for an expensive writing retreat? Next on the problematic list is her dog. Harold seems utterly adorable, but he also seems to need go on a few doggie behavioural classes. Why did nobody tell Ava that she needed to give Harold some proper training? Instead it seems to be dismissed and Harold is left to do whatever he wants. Now, can we talk about her delusions? It’s lovely to think that you are perfect for a complete stranger, but come on, you can’t live in a bubble forever, reality is going to intrude at some point so why not face it head on? Instead, Ava decides to live in her own romantic fantasy and then seems to blame Matt when things don’t go the way she thinks they will.

Next there’s Matt; he had so much baggage it’s almost impossible to unpick them all, this is a character that should be recommended a good therapist. Even from the very beginning he clearly had a few issues which Ava was very willing to overlook in her idea of the perfect romance. The one good thing about Matt’s character is that he has more depth than Ava and seems to be more thought out than Ava.

At this point you are probably thinking that we hated the book but that’s not 100% true, the rest of the characters were well written and thought out. Nell and Topher were great characters, funny and full of depth and had something interesting to say in contrast to Ava’s dreamland. Sairika and Maude were hilarious, Sairika’s check list for the perfect man was brilliantly done and all of us knew someone in our life like that. As for Maude, she was the light relief this book needed, she is the scatty friend who has children and who makes you roll your eyes, but you still love her regardless.

To sum up, there was nothing believable or plausible about this story and in the end, no one was really cheering for Ava at the end. Spoiler alert, Ava gets a book deal. A very dissatisfied and possibly generous 2 out of 5

Marie, Brixton Library Chicklit Reading Group

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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H is for hawkOur first foray as a book club into the non- fiction world brought with it quite a surprise. Usually the domain of men, a book about training hawks written by a woman, is unusual, particularly as all the authors of the books on falconry that Macdonald refers to are written by men, and Edwardian men at that. However, the book is divided into a celebration of nature and the countryside and a eulogy for a father lost.

Macdonald, a Cambridge academic and naturalist, shared a childhood passion of falconry with her father a journalist and photographer. When her father died suddenly leaving his car parked somewhere near Battersea Bridge, Macdonald was bereft and struggled to put her life back together. As part of her grieving process Macdonald decides to tame and train a goshawk. She drives from Cambridge to Scotland to buy a bird from a breeder she sees on line, paying £800.00 in cash, the exchange is written rather like a drug deal. Macdonald names the bird Mabel, as it’s female, and there begins the training of Mabel and the start of her grieving process.

With every stage of the training process Macdonald narrates the trials and tribulations of some of the falconry greats; Frank Illingsworth, Gilbert Blaine and T H White. The latter becomes something of a literary hero and austringer (the title for someone who trains hawks) and who himself lives on the outside looking in. Although their lives are starkly different, White feared his father, and Macdonald adored hers they are both searching for something to augment their lives through the training of their hawks. The similarities are that the hawk seems to fulfil a need that human contact does not.

It is not until the final chapters that we learn much about her father and what he achieved. He is a celebrated photo journalist with a following of his own. Although the concept of animals as emotional healers is not a new, we know that sales of puppies has increased tenfold during the Coronavirus pandemic, Macdonald is joyous in the hawks swooping flights and their relationship, if one can use the phrase, is based on the fact that Macdonald and the hawk are “parts of each other,” incomplete when separated.

As a vegetarian and city dweller some of the hunting is brutal; hawks are predatory birds and Macdonald describes having to break the neck of a rabbit so that it is not eaten alive, this is not for the squeamish! However, the message of the book is about self-reflection and rebuilding and if a hawk can help with that then all the good. Ultimately Macdonald knows that the hawk must be released into the wild, and rather like she lets her father go, so must she let go of Mabel.

Sarah Arodene Road Book group

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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for whom the bell tollsThis novel is possibly Hemingway’s best piece of fictional (but factually set) writing and deserves its reputation as a modern classic and an outstanding portrayal of how human beings face up to the realities of war. The novel came out of Hemingway’s involvement as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) between the forces of the Spanish Republicans (which were a broad coalition of both moderate constitutionalist and more revolutionary leftwing groups) and the Spanish Nationalists (also a broad coalition encompassing conservative and rightwing groups of various sorts but whose main strength lay in the rebel military forces who had launched a coup d’etat against the elected government of Spain in 1936). Hemingway’s sympathies were strongly with the Republicans. However the novel is really about what the First World War poet, Wilfrid Owen, described as the “pity of war”. When people are engaged in killing one another there are not really any rights and wrongs any longer, just the fact of killing and being killed. The title of Hemingway’s novel is taken from a piece by the seventeenth century poet John Donne which famously says: “… any man’s death diminishes me … never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”.

The novel concerns an American (Robert Jordan) – presumably a volunteer with the International Brigades who came to help the Spanish Republic, although this is not spelt out – who is sent on a mission to link up with partisan Republican groups fighting behind the Nationalist lines with the intention of blowing up a bridge which serves as a crucial strategic transportation node for the Nationalists. The blowing up of the bridge is meant to coincide with a massive planned assault by Republican forces in the sector – the blowing up must be done only when the attack has started – in order to hinder Nationalist reinforcements being sent against the Republicans. Once behind enemy lines Jordan has no wireless communication with the Republic, so he is very much on his own. He links up with a small group of partisans made up of disparate individuals all with their own back stories and motives for doing what they do. Notable among the group are Pablo (nominally the leader of the group, a conflicted individual whose loyalties are always in doubt), Pablo’s female companion Pilar who really supplies psychological cohesion and backbone to the group, and Maria, a young woman who had been brutally raped and abused by Nationalist soldiers and had been rescued by the group of partisans at an earlier stage. She is arguably a rather thinly developed character, even though she plays a crucial role in the plot and becomes Robert Jordan’s lover. There is also another partisan group led by a man nicknamed “El Sordo” (the deaf one) which plays a side role in the plot. The plot concerns the few days following Jordan’s arrival and the eventual blowing up of the bridge (although there are flashbacks to earlier happenings and accounts of wider military developments) . There is a strong sense of a final tragic outcome throughout, which in fact is what happens. Throughout the personal conflicts and interactions between all the characters are a main thread in the narration and dialogue.

Although American, Robert Jordan is an accomplished Spanish linguist with a detailed knowledge of Spain gained by visits over the years. He appears to be on some sort of leave of absence from an American university (although this is not made clear). In some way (again not made clear) he has either acquired or been trained in the skills needed by an explosives expert. Presumably for these reasons he has been selected by the military authorities for his role in the project. However part of his brief appears also to be assessing whether or not the Nationalists seem to have acquired any pre-knowledge of the planned Republican attack.

The detailed ins and outs of what happens in the few days can’t really be compressed into a review. However the salient developments are that Pablo (of the partisans) initially betrays the group – taking and jettisoning some of the explosives – but then returns in a fit of guilt to help in the blowing up of the bridge. However it also becomes increasingly clear to Robert Jordan that the Nationalists do appear to have foreknowledge of the Republican assault and for this reason the assault needs to be called off. One of the group is sent with this information back across the front line, but gets involved in all sorts of bureaucratic and other obstruction – failing to deliver the message into the right hands – which results in the Republican attack being launched pointlessly anyway. Robert Jordan knows the attack has been launched because of the sound of Republican aircraft and therefore that he has to attempt to blow up the bridge. This he manages to do against all the odds with the support of the partisans – a fair number of whom (but not Pablo, Pilar or Maria) are killed. The group then tries to make its getaway on horseback. They succeed. However Robert Jordan, the last away, has his horse shot from under him which breaks his leg. He therefore insists on remaining to kill as many of the enemy as he can. Maria desperately wants to stay with him but he and the others force her to leave him awaiting his inevitable death. The novel ends with Robert Jordan lying in wait for the arrival of the Nationalists. One of the latter is a junior Nationalist officer Lieutenant Berenda who only makes a brief appearance in the novel but is portrayed as an essentially decent man with a horror of war, but pulled into the conflict anyway. We sense as the novel ends that as one basically decent man, Robert Jordan, meets his end, he will take another basically decent man, Berenda, with him. This perhaps sums up John Donne’s lines which inspired Hemingway’s title “For whom the bell tolls”

The novel reflects well the personal tensions which come about in war, the brutality of which human beings are capable (there are harrowing flashbacks to earlier atrocities by both Nationalists and Republicans) and also what has sometimes been described as “the fog of war” in which the actual participants on the ground do what they do but have little knowledge or understanding of any wider reality beyond that in which they are immediately involved. The novel has a few weaknesses (one might wince at the description of Robert Jordan and Maria making love when “the earth moved” for them) but has many strengths (the well-crafted use of dialogue interspersing Spanish and a sort of Spanish-like English being one). In all the novel deserves to join other great classics of war fiction.

Michael, Durning Library Reading Group

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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The_Silence_of_the_GirlsA modern feminist retelling of Homer’s The Illiad focusing on the often untold toll of war on the women and girls caught in its wake. In Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls we follow Briseis, a captured Trojan woman, and “prize” of the Greek soldier-king, Achilles. This book does not shy away from the brutal reality of the female experience of war.

The book itself is well written, engaging, and thankfully not too graphic in specific detail. One group member stated “Soon after starting the book, I found that I wanted to slow my reading down to the rate of just a few chapters a day—purely to savour the beauty and elegance of her [Pat Barker’s] prose”. Others however did not agree and said that they thought it was unlikely that they would read more of her work. Some from our group compared this title with another recent retelling of Greek mythology, Circe by Madeline Miller. They said that the character of Briseis was comparatively quite flat and passive and that for a retelling focusing on women, the narrative felt squeezed into the gaps around a predominantly male story. Others countered that The Illiad is the basis for this book and so of course the plot is shaped around the actions of Homer’s male protagonists.

We discussed sexism, characterisation, and perspective. Overall we thought this book was good, well written, but not great. The sections that changed voice from Briseis to an unknown, seemingly omniscient, outsider confused many of us and we mostly agreed that while they were important for the plot to follow The Illiad, they weren’t part of Briseis’s story and we would have preferred if they had been left out and more time spent making Briseis an interesting and engaging character in her own right. With a range of scores from low to high, this book scored a healthy 6.8/10.

Alex – Minet Library Reading Group

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

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The Life and Loves of a She-DevilA darkly comic satire of the war of the sexes, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is the fantasy of the wronged woman made real. Our group opened with the comment that Weldon’s famous text is absurd, funny and unbelievable, not meant to be taken seriously. We, of course, then proceeded to take it very seriously indeed in our further examination of the writing!

Some readers found Weldon’s grossly exaggerated, hyper-real characters and scenarios comical; the writer is presenting us with a grotesque, a “freak show”, and holds nothing back in the playing out of this ultimate woman-scorned revenge story. The plot, in its simplest form, goes thus: Ruth, an ordinary, down-trodden housewife with an extraordinary (for all the wrong reasons for a woman, according to socio-cultural standards of attractiveness) appearance lives by the Litany of the Good Wife:

I must pretend to be happy when I am not; for everyone’s sake.
I must make no adverse comment on the manner of my existence; for everyone’s sake.
I must be grateful for the roof over my head and the food on the table, and spend my days showing it, by cleaning and cooking and jumping up and down from my chair; for everyone’s sake.
(…)

Her husband Bobbo (we did not miss the opportunity to mock the name Bobbo), a “good-looking man” whom Ruth is “lucky to have” begins an affair with Mary Fisher and shares the details of his sexual experiences with Ruth, his homemaker. Not only this, he claims to have fallen “in love” with Mary Fisher, who “lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea” and “writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.”. Where Ruth is tall, lumbering, dark and unprepossessing, Mary Fisher is “pretty and delicately formed, prone to fainting and weeping and sleeping with men while pretending that she doesn’t.”

After a particularly disastrous and ill-timed visit from Bobbo’s sympathetic parents in which the soup is ruined by dog hairs, Ruth finds that “the Litany doesn’t work. It doesn’t soothe: it incenses.” From here on she dedicates every moment and ounce of energy into becoming a She-Devil, renouncing all attempts to be a good wife, mother, woman. She divests herself of emotion and emotional connections: “I am a woman learning to be without her children. I am a snake shedding its skin.” Ruth (and some of us) henceforth relishes in her ingeniously cunning plans to exact her revenge on Bobby and Mary Fisher.

Speaking of shedding skin, the most-discussed and disgust-inducing part of the novel is when Ruth, having already succeeded in destroying Bobbo and Mary Fisher as individuals and a couple, as well as building a business empire, proceeds with the most outlandish surgeries to reconstruct her entire appearance as well as her voice and mannerisms. She becomes Mary Fisher: “Now I live in the High Tower, and the sea surges beneath as the moon circles and the earth turns”. Even those of us who supported and gloried in Ruth’s supremely devious vengeful ploys found this to be disappointing; Weldon’s message seems to be for a woman to be truly successful and win at life she must be beautiful and sexually desirable. Her daughter is robbed of her own agency and infected by the bias that Ruth passes on to her, perpetuating internalised misogyny in another generation. Although …She-Devil is oft cited as a feminist masterpiece, we found it problematic on these grounds as Ruth’s story ends with her embodying the “perfect woman” in appearance, sustaining the ideology not challenging it.

It was said several times that Weldon was very cynical and used the novel to criticise every societal construct going: marriage, the woman’s role, the man’s role, misogyny, separatist feminism, the medical profession, care homes and workers, the judicial system, religious types, unreligious types, the working class, the “dole” class, children, old people…nobody and nothing is spared the satirical, scathing pen wielded by Weldon. Unsurprisingly, this world where pretty much everyone (even Richard, the guinea pig) and everything is awful was too grim, gruesome and unsparing for some. Even with the rampant plastic surgery that exists today, Ruth procedures still jump out as particularly extreme and unpleasant.

The book reads almost like a fairy tale or incantation, something from an oral tradition which utilises lots of imagery and repetition of both words and ideas. It is told in simple, childlike sentences and the narrative voice changes from 1st (Ruth) to 3rd person, lending us Ruth’s immediate perspective but also creating a feeling that Ruth is omnipresent as the She-Devil, overseeing the ripple effects of the actions she sets in motion. The repetition of “Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower” has almost the same rhythmical beginning of “Once upon a time…”. One member pointed out that the motif of beautiful women in towers has sexual connotations.

Closing comments on the book were: compulsive reading, didn’t identify with any character, entertaining, funny, grotesque, silly, too manipulative, disappointing, dissatisfied with the style and character portrayals, could have been shorter, lost interest 3/4 in the novel, learned the lesson: invest in yourself, enjoyed in a horrible way, absurd, enjoyed more after watching the film, too contrived, a rollercoaster, testament to plastic surgery (!), loved it, anything but feminist, finished just for the group, enjoyed the snipes at various institutions, didn’t enjoy it, unsatisfactory, rollicking and fearless.

We scored The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon 7 out of 10, with a range of 4-9.

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group