Book Review: The Secret History of The Jungle Book

The Secret History of The Jungle Book, by Swati Singh, is a fresh if brief consideration of Rudyard Kipling and, arguably, his most famous creation. It is divided into three parts which look at: The Jungle Book’s popularity, reach and longevity; the man who wrote it; what his character, Mowgli, can teach us today. It explores the possible inspiration for the work of a hugely successful author – Kipling was the first British writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature – who carefully guarded his privacy. Kipling was decried as an imperialist, accused of being a Nazi, yet his personal story is more nuanced than these angry accusations.

Kipling was born in India and raised until he was six years old by his family’s servants. He will have been told myths and stories of the adopted land he loved in these formative years, many of which he wove into his later work. The following six years were a miserable and life altering experience. Sent to Southend to be raised and schooled as an Englishman he was fostered by a couple whose cruelties taught him the harsh realities of abandonment and survival. He returned to India as soon as he could wrest back control, to apprentice as a journalist.

Kipling’s adult life was punctuated by tragedy – two of his children pre-deceased him. His sister suffered a mental breakdown and he had a serious falling out with his brother-in-law which drove him from America. India remained his muse and his daemon, despite only living there sporadically. He described it as ‘the only real home I had yet known.’

Kiplings literary genius was often marred by prejudiced leanings regarding races and nations yet he rarely seems to have felt a part of wherever he lived. Likewise Mowgli, much moreso in his books than in the popular Disney film, struggled with a desire to belong in the jungle despite knowing he was a man, not the wolf he had been raised.

The author mulls how his story may be applied today:

“Mowgli was born in the golden dawn of the era of globalisation, when the progress of science and technology had started opening up the boundaries of the world. In the present scenario, as technology brings the communities of the world into instant contact with the click of a mouse, our world truly becomes a global village. But the flipside of this technology boom is the way in which the diversity of our world is often in an open confrontation which makes our world more of a global jungle than a global village, where the ruthless law of nature gives sustenance only to those ideas that it deems the fittest.”

Manuel Castells says in The Information Age: “Our world and our lives are being shaped by the conflicting trends of globalisation and identity.”

When we read the Law of the Jungle, we realise how the Mowgli stories were not merely an allegory for the empire for Kipling, but more the allegory of life itself.

The author’s arguments are sympathetic to a man who has a tarnished reputation yet wrote stories that still entertain readers and provide pleasure. Having read this discourse I am left pondering: if an artist should be judged for what he is rather than that which he creates; who arbitrates what is acceptable given evolving rules of cultural acceptability; how deeply we should dissect literature rather than simply enjoying a good read.

   

 

Book Review: The Photographer

This review was written for and originally published on Bookmunch.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel is proof that a consuming and fully detailed story may be told in under two hundred pages. The depths of the novel are to be found as much in what is implicit as from the elegantly crafted prose. There is insight and interest, flavour and nuance. Such writing deserves appreciation.

Set in Germany around the time of the Second World War, the protagonist is a young woman named Trude who lives with her controlling mother, Agatha. The generation before suffered hardship due to scandal which Agatha and her war scarred husband toiled to put behind them. Agatha is determined that her daughter will be the fruit of their labour.

Trude understands that her mother wants only what is best for her yet has a need to live her life for herself. When she meets a young photographer named Albert, who makes her feel joyously alive, she ignores Agatha’s derision for this boy ‘from the gutter’. They marry, travel and have a child who they name Peter.

Albert and Trude have a somewhat turbulent marriage, the negative aspects of which drive Agatha to intervene. She regards her actions as necessary for the good of her child and beloved grandson. The result is Albert being sent to fight in the war leaving his small family to seek a means to survive without him. Trude must decide how to deal with her mother’s betrayal.

The war reaches its conclusion and there follows a massive and confusing exodus from east to west. In a refugee camp near Hamburg the family are reunited but much has changed. Peter is not the son Albert envisaged, the child is unused to the presence of a father. Between them stand Trude and Agatha who must make difficult choices with the balance of their family, the direction of their futures lives, at stake.

Told from each of the imperfect characters’ points of view this tale offers a candid look at family dynamics and hurts caused as assumptions are made. At its heart is a love story, not a romance, that spans the three generations. Pragmatic decisions have led to difficult truths being accepted. The challenge is to leave them at rest.

Any Cop?: The writing is spare yet strikingly affective, touching the essence of each individual with precision. This is an impressive work of literary fiction that remains compelling and accessible. Like fine wine, it is best savoured and shared.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove, by Larry Tremblay (translated by Sheila Fischman), is the second book in the publisher’s 2017 East and West: Looking Both Ways series. The story opens in an Arabic country wracked by war, where nine year old twin boys, Ahmed and Aziz, live with their parents in the shade of the family orange grove. Their grandparent’s house has just been destroyed by a missile fired from nearby mountains, killing the elderly couple. Insurgents appear at their door demanding that the family seek revenge.

The boys’ father, Zahed, is persuaded that he must choose one of his sons to become a martyr for the cause, a suicide bomber who will destroy an arsenal of weapons held by the enemy. His choice and the reasoning he presents will tear the family apart. The surviving son must somehow learn to live with what has been done.

The spare yet poignantly articulate prose conveys a challenging depth of emotion. It is difficult to comprehend how a parent could ever be so convinced of the worth of their country or religion to willingly sacrifice their own child to the cause, and how this would make those considered expendable feel. In presenting this as a story of family rather than a particular conflict, and from the young boys’ point of view, the reader is left to consider the day to day nature of extremism. It is a story of the cost of war but also of belief, and how little difference exists between those who define themselves as enemies.

The reveals in the denouement are shocking yet the last line brings hope. An understanding is reached on how little those who have not directly experienced war can understand its lasting effects, and how those who have suffered yet survived must seek their own absolution. All of this is told in writing that oozes lyricism and an engrossing sense of place. Despite the distressing subject matter this remains a beautiful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: A Cage of Shadows

A Cage of Shadows, by Archie Hill, is an autobiographical account of the author’s troubled early life. He was raised in the Black Country during the depression of the 1930s, the eldest but one of eleven children. His father was an abusive alcoholic which exacerbated the family’s poverty. Archie nursed a rage against his home circumstances that moulded what he became. He had mentors in his father’s friends who taught him how to poach and steal food from farms and local woodlands. His admiration for these men, and the hatred of his father, never waned.

I rarely read autobiographies having been turned off the genre by numerous self-aggrandising celebrity memoirs, the proliferation of misery memoirs that followed the publication of Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), and the questioning of the veracity of these and the likes of A Million Little Pieces (James Frey) and Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson). A Cage of Shadows was first published in 1973 so predates these works. It was also the subject of controversy when Archie’s mother successfully sued for libel resulting in a rewrite that removed most of the sections where she is mentioned. The version I review here is a reprint of the original, described now as a classic, which was critically acclaimed when first released.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of the story, what is portrayed is a life of bitter hardship that was endured by too many. With jobs hard to come by – three men ready to take any vacancy – worker safety and renumeration were pitifully scarce. Archie had part-time work in an iron foundry while still at school and describes the conditions that damaged the employees’ health. Throughout his childhood he dreamed of escape.

The hand to mouth existence – where Tally Men and Means Test Men wielded their small power like little dictators – was relieved by drink and savage entertainments. There were illegal cock fights, rat killing contests, and bets taken on bare knuckle fighting between the men. The vernacular comes across as authentic although some of the terms would now be deemed offensive. The camaradarie perhaps explains why some look back on such difficult times with a degree of affection.

Archie did eventually get out but it was not the escape of his dreams. He enjoyed a stint working the canals, briefly falling in love, before signing up for military service with the RAF. From here he joined the police but was by now struggling with alcoholism. He did time in prison, in mental asylums, and ended up a ragged vagrant in London’s underbelly.

Archie’s account of each of these experiences is told with unsentimental candour and a degree of self-reflection. Of his poaching he notes that wild animal killing was deemed acceptable by those in authority if done as a sport but not to feed starving families. The antics may rightly be frowned upon but this is life lived on a hard edge. Many of his problems may have been self-inflicted but when Archie fell he could find no safety net.

The writing is assured offering a window into a life that reminds readers of the truth behind what some still refer to as ‘the good old days’. It is intriguing for the insights given, the imaginative reuse and recycling, the petty thievery that enabled survival. Poignant in places and sometimes brutal but with certain attitudes that remain all too familiar. This is an account steeped in history worthy of contemporary reflection.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Book Review: Behind The Mask Is Nothing

Behind The Mask Is Nothing, by Judy Birkbeck, is a devastating exploration of the abuse of power and the complicity of those who enable such abuse due to their inherent desire to belong. The protagonist is a woman named Stef who is a teacher, a wife, and a mother of two university aged daughters. She has a close and supportive family although, as is the way with families, the shadows from their shared history stretch long.

Stef’s grandmother, Hilda, helped raise Stef and her sister while their parents worked. The reader is offered a glimpse into Hilda’s past through a memoir she is writing recounting her youth in Berlin and as a member of Jungmädel. The tragic consequences of her desire to be regarded by her peers have darkened her life.

Stef likes to be organised and in control. When a new headteacher is appointed at the school where she works she finds her abilities undermined. Initiatives she enjoyed are changed for the worse and she is drowning in paperwork. Alongside these problems her younger daughter is visiting Africa and Stef worries for her safety. When she receives photographs and messages informing her that her husband, Mark, is cheating on her she doesn’t know who she should believe.

Mark and Stef approach a couples counciller, Oliver Diamond, who suggests they spend a weekend at a remote commune he runs on Exmoor. Here Stef discovers a group of people she feels accepted by, who listen to her concerns in a way her family have failed to do. Mark becomes suspicious of the setup and Stef bristles at his negativity. Over the following months she is pulled further and further into the Diamond Academy web. The charismatic Oliver controls his acolytes with an unpredictable mix of humour, endearments and viciousness. Stef will hear nothing against him.

Stef’s descent horrifies her family, especially Hilda, who understands that only Stef can make the decision to help herself. Hilda has experience of being drawn into cultish behaviour and the personal devastation this can wreak. She too had a happy childhood yet was persuaded that her family could damage her prospects of finding continued happiness. She paid a high price for her loyalty to a regime she wanted so much to believe in for how it made her feel.

“We were together, joined in spirit, we had new values, refined in the fire. Only later did I find out that all our noise was made to drown out our cries and the cries of those we trod on in the scramble for self-esteem.”

The casual cruelties of children and the more subtle yet equally devastating cruelties of adults are disturbing to read. The realisation that power is within a megalomaniac’s grasp, that they may harness the herd instinct and desire to belong to feed their ego and strengthen their position, results in situations where followers are used and then disposed of with little concern for their psychological cost. There is a conspiracy of silence for fear of rejection. The abused are complicit in that they allow themselves to be manipulated and will not question why such cruelties are deemed necessary.

The author makes clear to the reader what is happening yet also generates empathy for Stef and the young Hilda. The penultimate experiences of both are traumatic to read. What comes across is why cult members struggle to fully break away even when they finaly recognise the truth of their situation. The conflicted desire to recapture the feelings they enjoyed whilst within such organisations seems akin to addiction.

This is a powerful story, deftly presenting a situation often difficult to comprehend. It challenges the reader to consider how they would act under societal compulsion. In the world we live in today, it is an important lesson.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Holland House.

Book Review: You Will Grow Into Them

You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin, is a collection of ten short stories exploring the shadows that lurk beneath the surface of everyday lives. Set in a variety of times and imaginative places, each multi-layered tale offers the reader a glimpse of personal demons, psychological and physical, and the blindness many choose to affect to avoid engaging with other’s pain. Although extraordinary in places, the narrative conjures trials that are all too recognisable. Vividly constructed, these stories resonate with insight, however weird they may at times seem.

The collection opens with Passion Play, in which a teenage girl is asked to appear in a televised reconstruction of the last reported sightings of a missing friend. Although feigning care and concern, the adults take no time to discover her views on this exercise, assuming she will want to help. Told from the girl’s point of view, the undercurrents of fear that pervade a teenager’s life become manifest.

In Two Brothers, twelve year old William awaits the return of his older brother Stephen from his first term at an exclusive boarding school. Forbidden from mixing with the local children, William looks forward to resuming the games they have created together throughout their lives to date. The Stephen who steps down from the train has been changed, a transformation more complex than William first realises.

Breadcrumbs is also a story of transformation although it is more fairy tale in style. Fourteen year old Ellie is home alone when her tower block home, and the city below, are brought to a standstill by an apparent freak of nature. As all around and within are impossibly altered, she must choose to accept and merge with her surroundings or risk everything to break free.

Her First Harvest is set in an alien time and place but also explores the theme of choosing to fit in. A young girl attends her first ball in a metropolis, far from the country home she agreed to leave. There are those who wish to possess her. She seeks pleasure, recognising the transcience of this moment in the life she must surely face.

We All Need Something to Hide deals with the cost of trying to fight society’s unacknowleged demons, and the lengths to which some will go to protect the image desired by those they love.

In Dogsbody the world has been rocked by the sudden appearance of werewolves. Unable to explain why, they are first locked up and then registered and monitored as they attempt to reintegrate with society. Some propose they be culled, fearing a monstrous return. The blighted must live with the knowledge that this may someday happen, defined now by their affliction.

Songs Like They Used To Play explores reality and memory in a wondrously imaginative way. Each person’s life experiences are shared and remembered in edited highlights, with viewers filtering to their own bespoke screens.

The Last Meal He Ate Before She Killed Him considers aspiration, the benefits and costs of taking action in a controlling state.

“they are precious things, children. You fill them up with your hopes and fears and you send them out into the world as though such thoughts will sustain them. But they are their own souls and ours is but one influence upon them. It is sobering indeed to see how willing they are to open themselves to others.”

Set in a small town, The Bridge explores what is valued and the effect of loss. A young couple move into a house vacated by a widower who spent his time constructing a detailed model of the streets where they now live. The husband is intrigued by the detail, and then the omissions. The wife recognises the danger it represents.

The End Of Hope Street is, in my opinion, the oddest of the tales but only because it was the one story I struggled to interpret. It is a story of neighbours, neighbourliness, and of houses that turn against occupants with deadly results.

Whilst reading this collection I was blown away by the quality of the writing and by how much each story got under my skin. They are subtle, empathetic, yet eerily strange; disquieting in places with the accuracy of the human condition portrayed through a darkly playful lens.

I recommend you read this book. It has the power to move, and to challenge the way each reader perceives the everyday.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.