This choice came about on the recommendation of Jacqui, who had herself come across it on a chance recommendation. It was generally considered a book that kept readers absorbed, even though the subject matter meant it couldn’t really be called an ‘easy’ read. The journals – the books within the book – were generally considered the strongest parts of the book, which elicited a majority positive reaction, although some people did wonder if it did quite live up to the hype preceding it. But that is a whole other discussion for another time.
Some of the topics covered:
- Structure of the book;
- Tone and language (unsurprisingly, the first two points kept seguing into each other, and my notes reflect that);
- Favourite set piece scenes.
This book was the book club’s first ‘classic’, with an original publication date of 1889. It was also the book that had the most straightforward name recognition as a ‘comic’ or ‘funny’ book,* and the general response to the book was positive, though some readers were more enthusiastic than others (with Jacquie calling it her second favourite classic of all time, behind only Pride and Prejudice).
- Mixture of new and old readers
- Vast variation on reactions
- Different covers: led to discussion of AV adaptations colouring reading
- Descriptions of war/tunnelling: fed into personal family memories and memories of working in the archives
- Writing style: at strongest when sparse
- Responses to characters
- Comparison with Toby’s Room (the book club’s other WWI read)
- Sense of an ending
[As the book club enters its second year, the increasing animation of the discussions is starting to reflect the members’ comfort with the notion that constructive disagreement only leads to a more fruitful conversation. A wider variety of topics is thus getting covered, and so, I thought it might be helpful to have a road map of the major themes. That is why I’ve provided the list above, and will do so in future minutes.]
Unfortunately, this was unanimously the book club's least favourite book so far. No one could see why the book ranked so universally high in reviews on websites such as Amazon and Goodreads. Given the very high level of misogyny and violence and generally demeaning attitudes towards women (even O'Loughlin's wife), perhaps many of the reviewers were men, who were therefore approaching the book from a perspective that this book club couldn't?
The main issues that the book club faced with the book were disappointment that the execution fizzled out after a very promising start, a plot that had many holes,+ a lopsided use of details,* sawdust characters.#
The narrative lost a lot of its tension after its gripping start; although some of the technical details and information were interesting, it was also disappointing that the obvious person turned out in the end to be guilty. All of these factors put together meant that the set piece scenes too fell totally flat.
The general consensus was that this book was ‘hard going’ and difficult to finish. One of the major reasons for this was the handling of the different time strands and multiple storylines. In spite of this, it engendered some interesting discussion. Some people found that they preferred some of the chapters as stand-alone stories and would have liked the author to concentrate on those – for instance, the Hess storyline. Most of the characters did not create a great deal of interest or empathy with the readers, although the relationship between Larry and Sharleen’s son, Martin, was an exception. Jacquie felt that the late-blooming romance between Larry and Mary-Lou was unconvincing and she did not particularly care about them, which was a sentiment echoed by several others. However, Liz felt that the fact that Larry was still trying to win Mary-Lou’s approval after many years of wasted opportunity rang true.
The book, appears, at the outset, to resemble the feisty female protagonists of two series that revolve around solving murder mysteries: Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Nancy Atherton’s Lori Sheppard.
However, this book plays fast and loose with the usual genre limitations of crime novels, which is what it originally purports to be: there is also the simultaneous narrative of Lily Bard’s own back story. The crime elements mean the books of the series stand alone, but the development of Lily’s own story requires sequential reading.
The dual narratives are accompanied by multiple tones: from the brutally sombre (when Lily’s history is suddenly laid bare) to the earnest (the moment in the karate class when the women share a moment of vindication that their efforts in the class have real world survival implications) to the charming (Claude’s unexpected offer to take care of Lily/ the doctor’s silent provision of medication to a broke Lily) to the injected with dry levity (Lily’s succinct explanation of the threatening visual reminders of her past neutralises the threat).
The book club’s reaction to this book was unanimously positive, combined with pleasant surprise that such an apparently slight book threw up so many points of discussion.Even though the protagonist was such an uncommon reader, her reading journey struck chords with all the ‘commoners’ reading.*
Her foil – if he can be called that – Norman, was a favourite character. Even though his reading material could sometimes be suspect, the process of his promotion to Queen’s amanuensis was cited as a laugh-out-loud part of the book. His dismissal to the University of East Anglia, and subsequent triumphal return at the end of the book, symbolised the Queen’s reading journey coming full circle.
For those of the book club returning to this book, it retained its ability to be simultaneously sad but funny. There was a general consensus that it was a worthwhile if sad/downbeat read.
The discussion turned to the fact that all the parent–child relationships depicted were dysfunctional, and even the close sibling relationships depicted were not enough to keep them together, or even in contact, were things that the discussion repeatedly circled back to. Especially poignant against the background of these distant, unsatisfying relationships was the fact that her two surviving daughters rallied around Bunty’s death bed, allowing themselves the closure that the affection that they had craved would never materialise now. In an interesting cycle of conjunctions, the nurse attending Bunty seemed likely to have been the daughter Doreen had had to give up earlier in her life – Doreen who provided the single week of something most closely mothering that the sisters (Bunty’s daughters) are shown to have had. It is sadly fitting that Doreen is one of George’s mistresses; the only moments of happiness Bunty is shown to experience in her marriage are whilst she is having an affair. Some of the depictions of family life especially hit home since they seemed familiar to the readers’ own experiences.
The overwhelming reaction from the book club members was that they were disappointed that the familiar tales had somehow lost their magic/colour in the hands of a master storyteller. The stories all had a sameness to them, which made them difficult to tell apart, or be interested in. The tales felt more like folktales, which suffered from being taken out of the oral tradition.
Comparing the first line of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ between this version, and an edition of 1949, showed a lyricism in the ordering of the words, which arguably mimicked the cadences of how people tell stories, that is entirely missing from the retelling. That the lyricism can be retained even without sacrificing the uninflected language that appears to be one of the most obvious stylistic choices of the book is shown in one of the best stories in the collection – ‘The Juniper Tree’. It uses the elements that best mimic oral storytelling such as the repetition and the rhymes.
This was the first nonfiction book the book group had done, and it was interesting to see the two camps opinions were split into: those who related to the book and shared memories with the author, and those who had serious misgivings about sections, whilst loving other parts.*
The group also included those who knew the author’s prior work (as a music journalist, notably with NME, as a broadcaster with the BBC, etc), and those whose first introduction to his body of work was through this book. Those who knew his work agreed that his ‘voice’ came through in his writing. Those who didn’t still liked the way historical ‘fact’# was blended into personal narrative, peopled by memorable ‘characters’. Some of the histories that came up specifically were those of sport (especially football and rugby, working men’s clubs, and of course, given the title of the book, pies).+