The usual smooth running of the Berwick Book group took quite a knockback this month – with a bit of confusion over dates. It meant a last-minute change of venue – and apologies to Kim at Doolally’s and anyone else who ended up affected by this little chapter of accidents.
The short version of the story is that we found a pleasant seat and some coffee in the beer garden at the Kings Arms – and attempted to leave a note on the Doolally’s door for people to find. Colin (clearly a former boy scout!) tracked us down, but some people didn’t spot the piece of paper and assumed the meeting had been cancelled. In the manner of a Government inquiry, we won’t apportion blame – but I will try to ensure nothing like this happens again!
Onto the book itself, which was Alice de Smith’s Welcome to Life. The book was chosen by New Writing North as part of its Read Regional promotion of local authors. It’s set in 1989 and told from the viewpoint of 14-year-old Freya as she describes her unconventional family and the troubles of adolescence.
For me, this was an original and enjoyable book, although I found it rather lightweight. On the whole, however, it wasn’t well received by the Berwick readers who e-mailed me their thoughts. “Didn’t enjoy it”…”Couldn’t get into it”…”Didn’t think much of it…” Even Jill, who’s usually able to find something positive about all the choices, failed with this one!
Having said that, when the small number of us who did meet this month held our discussion, we found rather a lot to talk about. The character of Millie, Freya’s mother, was fascinating (the men, we thought, were rather less well drawn). We thought the writer did a great job of evoking the late Eighties era and some of the events, such as the housing market crash and the recession, are, of course, very topical for us today.
I also thought her teenage voice, using the popular slang of the time, was very accurate. I loved the sentence on P.34: “I wanted to fall asleep and wake up when I was eighteen.” I’m sure every teenager feels like this at some point!
This Sleeping Beauty image was one of a number of fairytale allusions, as Ann pointed out. The “false mother” figure of Mrs Glinka is reminiscent of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, with her enticing kitchen and her promise of gingerbread. The vain mother who seems almost threatened by her growing daughter is of course a fairytale standard (Snow White, perhaps also Cinderella?).
We spent most of the discussion, however, on the troubling final chapter or Epilogue. (NB: Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t finished this book, I’m about to give away a wholly unpredictable ending!) We simply couldn’t understand why the author had done what she did to her best character, Millie, who is left devoid of all her personality and her ability to do anything. So she was no longer destructive – but she also was no longer herself in any recognisable way. It’s the sort of thing that would make me snort with indignation if the writer had been a man – but given that this author is a young woman, we were all baffled as to why she felt the need to contain Millie in this way. The description of this virtually brain-dead woman as “more beautiful than ever” was very disturbing. Ann was reminded of The Stepford Wives and also of a short story by Ursula le Guin, set in a world which is perfect but depends upon the regular sacrifice of a child. She was also reminded a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
We weren’t sure what Alice de Smith was trying to say with this rather devastating ending – or whether she was simply (to use Ann’s wonderful phrase) “dropping an alligator through the skylight,” which is a writerly way of saying that something totally out of keeping or beyond expectation was allowed to happen. Either way, we all felt that the book would have been a lot more satisfying if it had finished at the end of the preceding chapter, with Millie’s final note to her daughter.
Other aspects of the Epilogue were irritating too – we were not convinced the father and Millie’s lover Edward would have set up home together and it just felt like the need to tie up all the loose ends was rather patronising to the reader.
If you like the “adolescent struggling with unconventional family” thing, I would recommend Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack. And for a really detailed evocation of the (earlier) 1980s and a very powerful description of a boy growing up in this time, I loved David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.
Ann also alerted us to a non-fiction book which sounds absolutely fascinating, written by Daniel Pennac about his struggle to persuade his children to read. It’s called The Rights of the Reader and the little paragraph she read out was really interesting.
We spent the rest of the meeting talking about how the book groups should go in the future – thanks to everyone who’s given me their views on this, which are being fed back to New Writing North. Any further comments happily received!
And finally – don’t forget our final meeting before the autumn, which will be on Tuesday July 28th at the usual time of 6.30pm. This will be an unconventional meeting in which we will be bringing along our favourite passages of writing about food – and also bringing along a related edible, to form a little picnic. It promises to be what my 12-year-old would describe as “random.” Weather permitting, we’ll be holding this meeting on Spittal Beach but with a Plan B to adjourn to my house if the weather’s atrocious! I’ll be putting the full details in an e-mail very shortly.
Fingers crossed for sunshine … and no more evidence of Murphy’s Law!
Next meeting: Tuesday 28th July. 6.30pm. Venue: Spittal Beach. Theme: Recommending summer reads and food-related writing!