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.
Blaming - Elizabeth Taylor, Jonathan Keates A simple, poignant story that focuses on obligation, guilt and blame, rather than characters or plot - though it's not as depressing as it sounds.

It is set around the time of publication (mid '70s), though at times it could easily be a decade or two earlier (except that the name Amy feels very incongruous). Amy and Nick are a late middle-aged, middle-class couple on a Mediterranean cruise, as he recuperates from a major illness. A younger, American author called Martha attaches herself to them as the only other English speakers, and when Nick suddenly dies, she helps Martha with the arrangements.

The book is mainly about the relationship between Amy and Martha: Amy feels obligated to Martha, but has little in common with her, and finds her needy and annoying ("She did all that for me and I never want to see her again, she thought in shame"). Her visits, when they cannot be prevented, become a way to pass time, "rather taken for granted than welcome". At one point, her son James warns, "Don't for heaven's sake punish her because you owe her gratitude."

Is Amy too cold, selfish and ungrateful, or is she just a shocked and grieving widow? "No one cares for reminders that gratitude is due."

In addition, Amy's relationship with James is tinged with all sorts of guilt, exacerbated by his wife Maggie ("in spite of lack of warmth, their relationship was exemplary"), and their children Dora and Imogen. Worst of all, are the guilty feelings that arise when someone dies: what should one have done differently? The only two people who never blame are Amy's housekeeper Ernie and widowed doctor friend Gareth, but even so, their competence sometimes makes her ashamed of her own helplessness, which she tries to hide.

The social niceties and incongruities are acutely observed. This is the first Taylor I've read, but I can see why she's likened to Bowen, Austen and Pym (whom I have read). There is even a painfully funny scene where James and Maggie discuss his mother's widowhood, starting, "We must do all we can for her", diluting their suggestions the more they discuss it, so the scene ends "So nothing was done" (Shades of "Sense and Sensibility").

The children provide plenty of humour, individually and in their sibling rivalry: Dora (the elder) is the more sympathetic character, but very knowing, and capable of being quite manipulative, albeit in a charming way, whereas Isobel is horridly selfish, rude and spoilt (fun to read about, but not to meet!).

I hope that Taylor didn't see too much of herself in Martha, in whose books "objects took the place of characters" and who uses vague research as an excuse for unwanted nosiness. When she visits, Amy realises she is "like a tiresome child... but unlike a child she can't be reprimanded". Despite her inquisitiveness, at other times she is strangely and frustratingly indifferent to people and social norms - yet has the audacity to accuse Amy of being uninterested in people. She also has a knack of expecting things and tacitly making other people feel guilty for not anticipating this, though to what extent this is deliberate is not clear.

The other link between Martha and the children is how they see themselves in the mind of others. Isobel "was disturbed, as many children and all egoists are... by the idea of a non-existence at any time with relation to the present" and Martha has similar concerns that when she goes away, she'll be able to picture Amy's life, but that Amy "won't be able to imagine ME, or my life. That makes me feel unreal".

By the end of the book, Amy is blaming herself for some aspect of everyone's life, including her own, with a smidgen or respite when "she was relieved... to be able to say that there was blame lying elsewhere".

The final questions is "What else could I have done?", and I'm not sure I have a satisfactory answer to that, because I'm not sure that anything else would necessarily have led to a happier outcome.

Currently reading

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