Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
Under a Canvas Sky: Living Outside Gormenghast - Clare Penate The youngest child of Mervyn Peake and Maeve Gilmore describes her bohemian childhood and teenage years in 60s London.

Love pours from the pages of this book: Clare is always keen to stress how happy and loved she was, even though the pain of her father's rapid mental decline is, at times, dreadful to read. It throws some light on him and his works, but as she was only seven when he changed, never to recover, she is limited in the insight she can give, having to rely on second-hand reminiscences from long ago to fill in some of the gaps: "Past seven years old, I hardly knew him".

Although Mervyn had been invalided out of the army after a nervous breakdown and was subsequently and forever haunted by the images he later saw at the liberation of Belsen as a war artist, he largely recovered, and played such an active role in Clare's early years that she "did not distinguish between my parents", randomly choosing which one to go to with a problem. "He was always there... Able to interrupt [his work] at any time, my brothers and I were unaware that we were interrupting." And this was despite the fact that "He took his work, but not himself, seriously" - family came first. Always.

There are delightful examples of artistic quirkiness. For example, Mervyn would often make her costumes for school plays: "At home, my costumes seemed entirely obvious... It wasn't with any sense of one-upmanship that Dad made these things. He just couldn't have made a dreary costume if he'd tried" - hence as one of the Ten Green Bottles, Clare was "an exquisite and elaborately painted absinthe bottle". More alarmingly, he picked her up from school one day, failed to shut the car door properly and not only did she fall out, but he didn't even notice until he arrived home "with the nagging sensation that he'd forgotten something"! She had concussion.

Clare acknowledges that most would describe her slightly odd upbringing as bohemian, but "I saw it only as a munificent and passionate sanctuary, where ideas were everything and love was the key." In fact many aspects of her childhood are exactly what people hold up as the ideal: plenty of books, art, craft, freedom run a little wild, time to make your own games etc, but all within a framework of routine, good manners, fixed meal times and plenty of brushing of teeth. "Everything around me was astonishingly organized and extremely tidy... it was just the laughter and sea of love I was marooned in that was unconventional in its generosity." The family had financial and health worries all along, but she was "wonderfully happy" and when her father became ill, "I was protected from too much pain by a fierce respect for childhood".

Money was a constant worry (though this is relative - Clare attended a boarding school), but having been brought up in the war, coupled with their eclectic tastes, Clare's parents were able to cope. In particular, they liked old objects: "What they felt comfortable with" were "things they had built some sort of relationship with... Everything was use until it rotted".

The trigger for the breakdown that destroyed Mervyn and opened the door to Parkinson's was the bad reviews his first play received. "My father crumpled, metaphorically and physically... the husband and father we knew gone like a puff of smoke, to be replaced by someone who had partly retreated into another world, somewhere we couldn't join him." Clare was seven, her brothers (seven and nine years older) almost adult, leaving her as the only child of a single mother much of the time. Mervyn came home for brief spells, but never recovered and died twelve years later. Note that her mother's memoirs do not put quite so much blame on the reviewers; see "A World Away", http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/487563887.

This is, obviously, awful, yet Clare points out that Mervyn had "managed effortlessly to make sure his daughter felt adored and appreciated, pretty and funny... Those feelings had matured and he had done his job." And despite her own worries, interspersed with frequent hospital visits, Maeve "made my life happy... jam-packed with fun and gently anarchy". "Dad coming back and forth from hospital became so familiar it was almost as if he was in the navy." "Well or unwell, everything was enhanced by his presence." If that is truly how they reacted at the time, I find it extraordinary (and admirable).

So life went on. Boarding school was "colourless" compared with home, and Clare, though a great bibliophile, was not academically inclined or successful at school, though she never felt disappointment from her mother. Maeve herself had done well at school, and was perhaps a little puzzled that her daughter did not do likewise, but she was at pains for her to know she wase loved in her own right, as she was.

Meanwhile, Mervyn had a lobotomy, which made matters worse and his speech became incomprehensible, even to his family (what a loss for a wordsmith!), although "his inherent playfulness was impossible to extinguish". By the time Clare was sixteen, "I searched for a sign of recognition... I was just a stranger who held him too tight and kissed him too hard." I wanted to cry at times, even if Clare did not.

Clare didn't read the Gormenghast books till her late teens (though she had read other works of her father's): there was no pressure for her to do so, coupled with a small fear that she might not love them as much as she wanted to (unfounded). She mentions that Fuchsia was based on Maeve as a girl, but the most poignant aspect of this whole story is her pointing out the prescience of the descriptions of Fuchsia having to watch her father's descent into madness, though it was written years before Clare was born: "it was as though my father had written it with me in mind, some self-fulfilling prophesy."

As a non-fiction book, this could do with an index, especially given all the great names that are dropped (artists, poets, writers, actors). I suppose this is because it's more the book of a daughter, than a writer, and it certainly helped me understand Peake a little better, so deserves the 4*.

Side note: She was christened Charmian Clare, but Clare stuck.

The most unexpected element was learning that Mervyn's favourite book was "The Diary of a Nobody".

All my Peake/Gormenghast reviews now have their own shelf:


This is a very personal biography (one of its strengths), but for analysis of how his life is reflected in his works, I recommend Winnington's "Vast Alchemies", http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/597014341

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China MiƩville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake