Monday 29 August 2022

A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler

 This is not one of my Mr B's subscription books - it's a book I suggested for a recent meeting of the book group I belong to. We wanted a short book for this session, and A Whole Life fitted that bill

My copy is a hardback, and it's rather lovely - I like the design of the cover, which is in white, black, and soft shades of green. The image looks to me like the sea, with heaving, foam-flecked waves. But it isn't the sea, it's a mountain. On the top of it is an alpine hut, and if you look carefully, you can see about a third of the way up a tiny figure of a climber wearing a backpack. He isn't noticeable, but there he is: he has a long way to go, but he's climbing steadily up.

And that really reflects the story. Andreas Eggar is born in a mountain valley. (Seethaler was born in Austria, so I think we can place the valley there.) An orphan, at the age of four he is put into the care of an uncle, a farmer called Kranzstocker, a cruel man whose only interest in the boy is how much work he can get out of him. He beats the child for the smallest of transgressions - spilt milk, a mistake in an evening prayer. One time. he beats him too hard and smashes the bone in his leg, as a result of which Andreas has a lifelong limp.

So Andreas has a tough, even brutal life from the beginning. Even when he marries, and seems at last to have found happiness, fate - and the mountain - intervenes. When he goes to fight, he is captured and held by the Russians for several years after the war has ended. But somehow, it's not a sad book. He never forgets his wife and no-one ever replaces her, but he just keeps on, like the figure on the cover image trudging up the mountain. When he returns from Russia, things have moved on and his old job with a cable car company no longer exists - so he simply finds something else to do, somewhere else to live. He is immensely stoical. He keeps on keeping on, because really, that's all you can do.

Before I went to my book group meeting, I knew that I liked the book, but I couldn't articulate why. But as we talked, it emerged that several of us had been through tough times lately. One of us had recently lost her father, and she talked about that, and how it had been. She said that yes, of course it was tragic - but everyone has tragedies in their life. And in the end, like Andreas Eggar, the thing you have to do is keep on. I talked about my fear of heights: she remembered climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. She wasn't a mountaineer, she said: "But really, it's remarkable what you can do if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other." (If anyone's read my book Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, you may remember that that's exactly what Jack has to learn, when he finds out, while plant-hunting in the Himalayas, that he is - inconveniently - afraid of heights: you must just keep putting one foot in front of the other.)

So, I think that's what chimes with readers of A Whole Life. Here is a man, a very ordinary man in terms of possessions and achievements, who has nevertheless triumphed and, in the end, lived a life he's pleased with. He's known the beauty of nature - and he's also known its cruelty. He's known love - but he's also known loss. And yet, despite all life's thrown at him, he's just kept going. 

Monday 22 August 2022

Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead

 For my last birthday, I was lucky enough to be given a book subscription from Mr B's Emporium in Bath. (Thanks to my son for this incredibly generous present!) Each month, I receive a beautifully packaged book, chosen for me by one of their booksellers after an initial consultation about the kind of books I like. What I should have done, of course, was to have written some notes about each one as I finished it. I didn't do that, so now I'm playing catch-up.

The Great Circle was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and also for the Women's Prize for Fiction. It's a novel about Marian Graves, a (fictional) early female aviator - a contemporary of Amelia Earhart. It's a huge novel which is fitting, because the peak of Marian's flying career is her attempt to fly the Great Circle - to circumnavigate the globe.

Marian's profound love of flying is at the heart of the book, but it takes in much more: set mostly in America, it takes in a good deal of the twentieth century. The story starts, not with a plane, but with a ship: the Josephina Eterna. The owner's wife, Matilda, is given the job of launching the ship - but she is perturbed: the ship is named after her husband's mistress, and also, no-one has explained to her exactly what she has to do. The captain, Addison Graves, tries to help her, but the bottle misses its target: a bad omen. A few years later, the ship sinks. Many passengers are lost, and Graves takes the blame, though the fault was really the owner's. As a result, he spends several years in prison, and his two children, of whom Marian is one, are sent into the care of his kindly but rather feckless brother.

When he comes out of prison, he briefly comes to see his children, but then fades away again, leaving behind him crates full of his belongings - books and mementoes of his travels. Marian is fascinated by the accounts of explorers and travellers - especially those who go to the far north - and so the seeds are set for her love of adventure. As a teenager, she has a flight in a plane which is part of a travelling show, and she is hooked. She gets to know an older man, wealthy but ruthless, who will finance her flying if she will marry him. She makes the deal, but eventually needs to attain freedom, and flies north.

And so her story continues, taking in a stint in Britain during the war taxi-ing planes for the RAF. 

But there is also another, secondary heroine, a film star called Hadley. Her story is contemporary. She is something of a lost soul, caught up in various scandals. She is playing the part of Marian in a film, and becomes fascinated by her. Marian's great circumnavigation ended, apparently, in disaster: Hadley's own parents died when she was young in a plane crash. Clearly, there are parallels.

I do see the need for this parallel story - I think. It provides a way of exploring what happened to Marian, and makes it into a mystery story with all the tension and suspense which that entails. But I didn't like Hadley as a character. She's selfish, shallow and uncaring - or so she seems to me - and I didn't like being in her company. But she takes up a relatively small part of the book - and from other reviews that I've read, other readers don't have the same reaction to her as I did. So don't be put off by my dislike of Hadley - you probably won't feel the same about her, and anyway, there is so much more to enjoy in this book. The prose, for one thing - it is beautifully written. Here, for example:, is the first paragraph:

I was born to be a wanderer. I was shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave. Some birds fly until they die. I have made a promise to myself: My last descent won't be the tumbling helpless kind but a sharp gannet plunge - a dive with intent, aimed at something deep in the sea.