Monday, 4 February 2013

Review: LONG LANKIN, by Lindsey Barraclough

Long Lankin is a fantastic, post-war Britain ghost story, with undercurrents of M.R. James-style horror.

Gosh, sounds a bit like description of wine.

In some ways, Long Lankin in an atypical YA novel.  First of all, two of the novel's narrators are twelve (maybe thirteen), which would suggest the novel is middle-grade (ie: for ages 9-12).  However, the third narrator is probably somewhere near sixty, which suggests this isn't a novel for young people at all.  Also, the narrative includes largeish sections of archaic documents, with suitably old-fashioned language and spelling and stories of adultery, etc.  The novel is, however, an atmospheric, suspenseful YA read, driven by a great story.  All these non-standard elements make it original and also, perhaps, appeal to readers of all ages.

On to the story!  Cora and her four-year-old sister Mimi are sent from their East London flat in 1958 to stay with their Aunt Ida in her crumbling ancestral home in the Essex marshes.  While there, they befriend Roger and his family and set out to solve the mystery of why strange ghostly children appear in the nearby churchyard and why all the windows and doors of Guerdon Hall must be kept shut and locked at all times.  It soon becomes clear that Mimi, Cora's little sister, is in grave danger.

All three points of view are well drawn and Aunt Ida's is just as interesting as the children's because she knows much more than she wants to say about the history of Guerdon Hall and the nearby church.

Interspersed with all this ghostliness are much less chilling elements of good old childhood fun - family life, making camps in the woods, riding bicycles, hanging out in an old pillar box left over from the war, running to the shop to get a sweet while one picks up Dettol or washing up powder for Mum.  I've seen some readers complain that the novel begins slowly but I savoured all these details of childhood and post-war Britain.  This is the era in which my parents were born and my grandparents lived, but I'm familiar with the narrative of boom and prosperity in North America.  For that reason, it was fascinating to see a world in which bomb damage in London still hadn't been cleared and one might have to run over to the pub to make a telephone call.  (It reminded me at times of BBC's Call the Midwife, which we are currently watching).  Also, as in Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, the post-war period offers a good opportunity for both ghost stories and discussions of class and social change.

The slow build of atmosphere and the careful revelation of the story of Long Lankin are very effective in racheting up the suspense.  At one point I felt viscerally, physically tense, waiting to find out what would happen to the characters I had grown to care for.

This is a novel based on the ballad "Long Lankin", which is printed at the beginning of the book.  Knowing the ballad makes the novel more chilling but doesn't give the plot away.  Part of the fun of the novel is the way Barraclough works out elements of the ballad and places them in a sensible historical context.  This method reminded me of Janet McNaughton's An Earthly Knight, a YA retelling of the ballad of Tam Lin.

P.S.  I love the cover - the misty obscurity, the looming trees, and the girls who look like they're actually from the 1950s.  One of my pet peeves in the covers of historical novels are models who look much too modern!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Review: A WORLD BETWEEN US, by Lydia Syson

In the last year, I've learned more about the Spanish Civil War from reading young adult novels than I ever learned in school.  First, I read Michelle Cooper's fabulous The Journals of Montmaray trilogy, which worked in details about the civil war through the characters' links to Spain and friendship with a Basque captain (reviews here and here).  Then, at the beginning of January I read - almost in one sitting - Lydia Syson's first novel for young adults, A World Between Us, which centres around a love triangle between a nurse, an International Brigades soldier, and a journalist, all fighting fascism in war-torn Spain.

Felix (short for Felicity) is a London nurse who follows Nat, a Jewish communist and International Brigades soldier to Spain, out of a sudden, head-over-heels love for him and deep need to escape middle-class, patriarchal suburban life and expectations.  George, a family friend who hopes to marry her, follows her when she disappears from the Gare du Nord in Paris and works as a journalist while he tries to discover information about her whereabouts.

Introducing these three point-of-view characters, explaining their motivations, and getting them to Spain takes a very few chapters at the beginning of the book, a tricky manoeuvre that felt slightly unwieldy and rushed to me.

But once they get to Spain, let me tell you, the novel really gets going.  This is the second novel I've read from Hot Key Books's inaugural year.  The clever wheel on the back of the book promises 50% epic romance, 25% history, and 25% drama.  I was a bit worried that the focus of the novel would be on the love triangle, to the exclusion of the fascinating and frankly, really important historical details of the Spanish Civil War, which was in many ways a training ground for the strategies and techniques used in World War II.  For instance, the bombing of civilian and not just military targets for the purposes of creating terror.  It began with the destruction of Guernica, so terribly evoked in Picasso's famous painting, and repeated itself with terrible consequences in the East End of London, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, and many other cities.

Picasso - Guernica
However, I need not have worried.  Syson does a wonderful job of melding historical detail with the lives and loves of her characters.  The brutality of the fighting, dealing with bombings, and tending the war-wounded are told compellingly, as is the psychological strain Felix, Nat, and George experience.  In a setting like this, the memory of love becomes precious, a place to escape to in a world on fire.  The lovers in this novel don't actually spend that much time together.  Each character develops over the course of the war and comes to his or her own understanding of the importance of the conflict they are engaged in.  These periods of separation also means that moments like the ones in which George sees Felix again or Felix is able to sit with Nat in war-weary Madrid carry heart-breaking significance.  Syson deals well with the physicality of romantic relationships in wartime - why wait if you might die tomorrow?  What do social expectations matter in world turned upside down?

As the novel progresses through the various stages of the civil war, helpful maps at the beginning of each section show the advance of Franco's troops and the major centres where the action takes place, so that you can see just how far away the characters are from each other at any given time and how close they are to the front line.

Felix's experiences as a nurse, sometimes in haphazard, ad hoc conditions, are especially well done.  As a Canadian, I was so pleased to see that one of our national heroes, Dr. Norman Bethune, has a walk-on role.  Shamefully, I had not realised that Bethune pioneered a system for blood transfusions at the front during the Spanish Civil War.  The details of blood types, the importance of refridgeration, and the sacrifice of the doctors and nurses who gave their own blood to save their patients are all skillfully rendered.

Syson also does an excellent job at hinting at the divisions and suspicions within the anti-fascist faction.  George Orwell went to Spain to serve, only to flee with his wife when the communists accused him of being a Trotskyite.  The author also illustrates the conflicts between the communists and the Catholic Church, showing the reader that the political, religious, and military situation in Spain was complex and multi-faceted.

As the novel drew to a close, I became so engaged with the characters that I found myself throwing out any aesthetic expectations of a balanced ending, only hoping for the characters' happiness in the face of tragedy and barriers at every turn.  I'm happy to say that the novel ends the right way (notice, I'm not saying how it ends, or what "right" means).  Any personal happiness the characters win at the end comes at the cost of their experiences in Spain and also the inescapable fact of failure and impotence.  If you know the history going in, you know that the Spanish communists and International Brigades were defeated and Franco governed Spain until his death in the 1970s.  What I hadn't realised until the Afterword is that the international volunteers were actually sent home in 1938, unable to fight until the bitter end.

And more problems waited for them at home.  International volunteers were seen as suspect because of their relationship with communism and some were not allowed to volunteer as soldiers in the Second World War because Western governments were concerned about their loyalty.  Some people had trouble gaining employment after returning from Spain.  Volunteers also weren't recognised as veterans until long after the conflict as well.

If you enjoyed Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity or Michelle Cooper's Montmaray books and are looking for another fabulous YA historical novel, I heartily recommend you pick up A World Between Us.

P.S.  Last year, a bunch of old interviews with Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War were discovered in the basement of the CBC building in Toronto.  Material from these interviews featured on three episodes of the program Living Out Loud.  You can listen to them on CBC's player here.  Fascinating stuff.

Music of Michaelmas 2012: Within Temptation Edition

Before the end of last year, I promised a post on the music I listened to in Michaelmas Term.  Seeing as we are now three weeks into Hilary, I thought I'd better get this music post up now before it becomes morbidly too late.

Because I went to Within Temptation's fifteen-year anniversary concert in Antwerp, I spent some time listening to their back catalogue, Enter (1997), The Dance EP (1998), Mother Earth (2000), The Silent Force (2004), The Heart of Everything (2007), and The Unforgiving (2011).  In honour of this re-listening to one of my favourite-ever bands, I give, you my favourite six seven songs. 

(Which were incredibly hard to choose!)

"Candles", from Enter.  My favourite from the era of the first album and EP, when the band did "Beauty and the Beast"-style singing.  That is, pairing Sharon den Adel's lovely "clean" vocals with male, er, growling.  If you don't listen much music with growling, it will come across as strange and Cookie Monster-ish, but I've developed a bit of a fondness for it (in moderation!) and I quite like the contrast it creates in songs like this one.