30 Before 30: Jamaica Inn

Jam Inn Jamaica_Inn_novel

When I first heard Tori Amos sing of pirates, trust, and cliffs of rock in her song ‘Jamaica Inn’ from The Beekeeper album, I was instantly filled with a desire to read Daphne Du Maurier’s book of the same name. Though I knew very little about the book, other than that it was based on the history of a centuries old inn on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, I’d heard many glowing reviews of it. Imagining a dark tale of gothic romance, I was pleased to discover (about eight years later!) that my theory was correct. From the first page I was completely enthralled, swept into the bleak and desolate nineteenth century landscape of the Cornish moors and the literary territory of the gothic novel through Du Maurier’s use of compelling imagery.  Descriptions of the ‘granite sky and a mizzling rain’ and a coach ‘rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man’ propelled me into a story of darkly dramatic proportions, immediately creating the tone of gothic intrigue that permeates the entire novel.

tamos

To summarise, Jamaica Inn is the story of a young woman, Mary Yellan, who obediently complies with her dying mother’s wish that she goes to live with her Aunt Patience and her husband, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, after her death. Arriving to find that her once happy Aunt Patience has become a nervous and almost childlike woman, scared of her violent husband, and that Jamaica Inn is a place feared by the locals, Mary begins to suspect that something is amiss. Unable to depend on her feeble aunt, Mary determines to discover the secrets of Jamaica Inn and her uncle, Joss Merlyn, but soon finds that it is impossible to bear the terrible burden alone. Finding herself drawn to two very different men, Joss’ brother Jem, a magnetic but roguish horse thief, and Francis Davey, a strange and distant vicar, Mary must decide who to trust as events begin to unfold outside of her control.

Besides some beautifully atmospheric descriptions that make the novel immensely readable, what I loved most about Jamaica Inn was Du Maurier’s characterisation of its central protagonist, Mary Yellan. Spirited and courageous, Mary is an extremely likeable character- in fact, I’d even go as far as saying that she is my new favourite fictional heroine (though I still love Elizabeth Bennett)! As someone who has been raised on a working farm, she is hardy and practical, preferring the idea of independently running a farm to the notion of marriage. Moreover, she seems to understand, beyond the conventions of the age in which she lives, the restrictions that are imposed on most married women, recognising her Aunt Patience as an embodiment of the married woman’s metamorphosis from autonomous individual to voiceless shadow of her former self. That is not to say that she is strictly anti-men, however. Despite her revulsion for her uncle’s treatment of her Aunt Patience, Mary understands and experiences desire and the complications that arise from it. Although she enjoys solitary wanderings and relishes the idea of returning to her former home to live a life of independence, Mary’s ambivalent feelings towards the mysterious Jem Merlyn mark her out as a character of complexity. The reader is never quite sure what she will do next, yet there is no doubt that Mary Yellan will continue to remain true to herself, executing her plans with good judgement, resolve and integrity.

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Mary Yellan is not the only complex character in the book, however. In Joss Merlyn, Du Maurier carves out an extremely flawed character- who is both detestable and fascinating at the same time. Finding myself sympathising with Joss on more than one occasion, I viewed him as an alternative Heathcliff. Whereas Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff denies his roots to climb the social ladder, ultimately becoming a self-made man, Joss seems to use his as a justification for his depraved behaviour, blaming his father and grandfather’s genetic influence for his own misdemeanours on his path to self-destruction. Though he is guilty of heinous crimes, Joss’ humanity emerges through drunken revelations and the dreams that haunt him, reminding the reader that, despite his seemingly evil personality, he is, after all, merely human. I don’t think anyone could describe Joss Merlyn as a likeable character, yet I found that there is something quite pitiful about this ‘great husk of a man’  which almost helps to mitigate the severity of his crimes.

To say that Du Maurier’s novel isn’t predictable would be untrue; I was able to guess some of the outcomes halfway through the book. This never diminished the enjoyment of Jamaica Inn for me, however, as I was far more interested in the psychology of the characters than the actual plot. Whilst many readers have drawn comparisons with Du Maurier’s most famous work, Rebecca, suggesting that Jamaica Inn is a much weaker novel, I personally found Jamaica Inn to be a much more enthralling read. With all the elements of a traditional Gothic novel, including a suitably dreary landscape and the archetypal Gothic building, Du Maurier’s story never failed to excite me. In fact, if I didn’t still have another 24 books to read, I’d start reading it again!

Now that I at least partly understand Tori Amos’ song, I think it may be time to plan a literary pilgrimage to the real Jamaica Inn so that I can truly understand its significance in Cornish and cultural history. Hopefully there’ll be no bands of criminals to contend with, but, like Mary Yellan, I’d be more than happy to stumble upon a real-life Jem Merlyn!

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30 Before 30: Murder on the Orient Express

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As my brain was still swirling with post-Satanic Verses thought last weekend, I decided that it was time to relieve my mind of confusion and read something much lighter! Although a murder mystery novel is hardly ‘light’ in terms of subject matter, Christie’s writing style is so simple and methodical that Murder on the Orient Express was immensely readable from the start. When I was a child, I loved the Famous Five and Nancy Drew books, so I had no doubt that I would find this equally compelling. Journeying to Manchester to celebrate my friend’s 30th birthday gave me plenty of time to read, so I began it on the train, then became so absorbed in it that, after checking into my hotel, I ended up going to the Cornerhouse café to read more whilst waiting for the rest of the party people to arrive. If you ask me, a good brew and a book are always a winning combination (even if that does make me sound like an OAP!).

The basic plot of Murder on the Orient Express, written in 1934, is as follows: Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, is hurrying home from Syria after a telegram notifies him that there’s been an important development in a case he’s been working on. When the train he is travelling on (the Orient Express) becomes stuck in a snow drift and the man in the compartment next to Poirot is found dead, having been stabbed numerous times, Poirot must attempt to solve the murder mystery with the help of only two others: his old friend, Monsiuer Bouc, a director of the train company, and a Greek doctor, Dr Constantine. Narrowing the suspects down to the other passengers in his carriage, Poirot employs logical methods to ultimately deduce the identity of the murderer, interviewing each of the suspects, listing the evidence, and discussing his theories with his friends at regular intervals.

Hercule Poirot

What I found particularly interesting about this book was the use of negative stereotypes about race in the formulation of theories, particularly stereotypes of the English. On numerous occasions throughout the book, characters describe the English as cold, reserved, unapproachable and incapable of feeling, with Poirot’s first encounter with English people on the train resulting in his observation that ‘True to their nationality, the two English people were not chatty.’ Later on, I was amused by the assertion that the crime of stabbing someone multiple times was uncharacteristic of an unfeeling English person, but seemed more likely to be the crime of an Italian due to their passionate natures! Christie’s constant use of stereotypes are clearly a device to escalate the complexity of the plot and mislead the reader into making assumptions about characters. Whilst these generalisations are consistent with old-fashioned ideas about race, I doubt that modern crime writers would allow their detectives to think/voice such blatant racial stereotypes nowadays however!

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Although the novel isn’t scary, I did get a little jumpy when reading it at the hotel before my roomie arrived. Every little noise outside seemed amplified, and I became very conscious that, like the passengers on the Orient Express, I was in a little room on a corridor full of strangers who could potentially be murderers! A bit of nervous agitation can only be a good sign in a crime novel, however, reflecting how convincing and absorbing the plot is. Christie’s writing style may be quite simple, but it suits the genre of the book, allowing the reader to focus on the happenings on-board the Orient Express and attempt to come to their own conclusions about the identity of the killer. I am pleased to say that, with the help of a diagram of the carriage layout and constant repetition of the evidence, I correctly guessed who the killer was about forty or fifty pages from the novel’s end. Without going into too much detail, the ending is very interesting, provoking the reader to question the effectiveness of the justice system and ponder upon issues of ethics and morality.

Ultimately, I’d describe Murder on the Orient Express as a vastly enjoyable read that works the brain without overworking it. On the basis of this book, I will definitely be reading another story about the Belgian detective, and may even watch the TV adaptation too (previously I’ve only ever seen snippets of it)! What’s more, I think I may read some modern crime novels; Agatha Christie and Poirot seem to have given me a hunger for murder mysteries!

Published Poetry: Paper Girl

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It’s not very often that I have the opportunity to publish two blog posts in one week, and this week has probably been busier than most! As I’ve settled down to recover from all the chaos however, I thought I’d write a short post to share my most recently published poem, which I received a copy of on Friday. Exciting times!

I’m particularly proud of this poem as it’s something I wrote for my university portfolio eight years ago, but which only got accepted for publication by The New Writer after I’d made a couple of vocabulary changes to it. I think the moral of this story is that sometimes perseverance pays!

Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Paper Girl

If I were a tree,

gnarled and shrunken with misery,

you would have felled me long ago,

slicing me into your paper girl, my rings of beauty

lost in the monotony of this:

 

 

a blank page.

 

When was it that love became a mere noun,

reiterated

time and time again

in the branches

of a tree

bearing no fruit?

30 Before 30: The Satanic Verses

Salman Rushdie

This is probably the most controversial piece of fiction in modern history.

It is also, however, a work of imaginative brilliance.

In my post-reading ecstasy, when I was considering how to approach writing about The Satanic Verses, my mind was so jumbled and chaotic with thought that I found it almost impossible to structure my response to it clearly. The one thing I wanted to convey, I decided, was the idea that this book MUST be read by anyone and everyone who is interested in literature and/or religion. Yes, it is dense, intellectual and so surreal in parts that you start to question your own sanity. If you can make it past page 28, however (a man I got talking to in the pub told me that this is when he closed the book, never to reopen it), you may as well carry on reading the next 500 pages. Slowly. With an open mind.

The Satanic Verses is the story of two very different Indian Muslim actors who are joined together by one event: their unlikely survival of a terrorist attack in the late Eighties. Clinging together as they plunge from a hijacked jet towards the English Channel, both clearly believe that they are about to meet their maker, yet, in a miraculous turn of events, survive to be reborn on English soil…one as an angel, complete with halo, the other as a horned devil.

What follows is what Angela Carter described as a ‘rollercoaster ride over a vast landscape of the imagination’ as each character journeys on through a life of physical and spiritual metamorphosis, experiencing love, loss, betrayal, hallucinations (in the case of one of the men), alienation, and, ultimately, what it is to be human. For Saladin Chamcha, man of a thousand voices and ardent Anglophile, the process of falling to earth as a devil eventually seems to humanise him, while Gibreel Farishta’s ‘transformation’ into the archangel Gibreel (which can actually be read as a symptom of his schizophrenia) ultimately leads to his downfall as he descends into a world of paranoia, jealousy and despair.

There is nothing controversial in this in my opinion, though references to promiscuity and homosexuality,  the questioning of Allah’s existence, and the description of a Muslim stuffing haram foods into his mouth in the first thirty pages of the novel made me understand why Muslims may find Rushdie’s novel so offensive.

Burning the Satanic Verses

The controversial elements of the book actually appear in chapters that, as an aside to the main action of the novel, are meant to be read as a sequence of dream narratives experienced by Gibreel during his incarnation as the Angel Gibreel (or one of his hallucinatory experiences). In one dream-vision, Ayesha, a butterfly-eating young woman who claims to receive messages from the Angel Gibreel, leads a village to their death or new life (you decide) following a lengthy hajj to the Arabian Sea, whilst in another the early days of Islam are re-narrated, with Mahound (the Prophet Muhammad) struggling to convert a polytheistic society to the true word of God. Although Rushdie’s creation of a character (Salman) who alters the word of Allah when given the task of writing down Mahound’s recitations outraged many Muslims throughout the world, it is undoubtedly the inclusion of a story rejected by most Muslims which caused The Satanic Verses to be branded a work of blasphemy by many religious leaders and scholars of Islam.

As the original story goes, during what he believed to be a revelation, the Prophet Muhammad recited verses accepting three goddesses into the Islamic faith, only later rejecting these verses with the suggestion that Shaitan (the Devil) came to him in the form of the Angel Gibreel. Anyone who knows anything about Islam will understand why this is such a controversial story. As the Shahada, the statement of belief which forms the basis of all Islamic faith, declares that Allah is the one and only God, and the Qur’an is viewed as the literal word of God, Rushdie’s decision to include the story of the Satanic Verses in his novel, and actually name his novel after it, can only be described as brave. Or perhaps mad.

Satanic Verses

For many people, the allure of The Satanic Verses lies in its status as a novel of scandalous proportions. Any book that causes a spiritual leader to issue a fatwa sentencing its writer to death is going to be appealing on the grounds of it being taboo, yet to some extent I think that this is to the book’s detriment. Overshadowed by the hype, the book’s literary merit has, to some extent, been forgotten by the general reader. Through blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality; life and death; good and evil, Rushdie explores many interesting themes, with the primary focus, I felt, being on the idea of alienation from culture, family, and even oneself. Whatever people may say about Rushdie’s treatment of Islam, there is no denying that The Satanic Verses is a masterfully lyrical and satirical novel that makes the reader reflect on the many nuances of the human condition.

There are, of course, flaws within the book- the structure of it being, for me, the most obvious of these. If you can cope with the constant flicking from reality to dream narrative without getting either confused, annoyed or bored, then, quite frankly, you deserve a high five! Additionally, the amount of minor characters left me bemused on more than one occasion. The Satanic Verses does require a lot of concentration and mental investment, but, if you are prepared to proceed with it, it is hugely rewarding. Be warned, however: unless you are Indian, a Muslim, or highly knowledgeable about Islam, there will be many jokes and references that you will either completely miss or fail to fully comprehend.

Due to this being a blog and not a piece of literary criticism, there are many elements of The Satanic Verses that I’ve left untouched. The fact is, I don’t think it’s possible to give an overview of this book that will truly do it justice. Multi-layered, philosophical, and almost farcical in parts, Rushdie’s most widely discussed novel is something you have to read for yourself. Whether you love it or hate it, I’m sure you will be able to appreciate it as a work of considerable literary power.

After reading Midnight’s Children I started to think that Salman Rushdie was a literary genius. After my reading of The Satanic Verses, I am now convinced that he is.