Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Man in the Picture & Good Behaviour

I'm falling behind with book reviews once again. So, as my cold is making me feel thoroughly unenthused about anything other than sitting in a chair and reading, I think I'll do two shortish reviews to catch up. First up, The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill.

'Oliver' is staying in rooms at his old university in Cambridge, during school holidays, so that he can visit and spend time with his old professor, Theo Parmitter. Theo is very elderly now and retired but used to dabble a bit in the buying and selling of works of art. He points out a particular piece he has to Oliver, a piece that Theo has hung in a corner out of the way. It's a depiction of a carnival scene in Venice and Oliver is strangely drawn to the painting but repelled by it at the same time. Over the space of a couple of evenings, ensconced by the fire, Theo recounts the manner in which he came across the painting and the sinister effect it has had on life ever since.

To my mind Susan Hill writes her ghost stories very much in the style of M.R. James. They tend to be written in that same old-fashioned 'academic' style which is such a pleasure to read - her The Woman in Black is one of my all-time favourite supernatural tales for instance. Thus I had expectations of this book and I was not at all disappointed. Hill sets a very cosy scene to start off with but an air of menace quickly builds. There are stories within stories too - Theo describing how he went to Yorkshire to meet a previous owner of the painting for instance - that chapter so reminded me of a recently read book, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. For me this is a classic little ghost story. I liked everything about it, the setting, the atmosphere, the nice twist at the end. Great stuff - and even better... I picked this hardback up in a charity shop for 80p!

Book 5 for Carl's RIP IV challenge.

Next up, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane.

Aroon is the product of Irish/British aristocracy from just before WW1. She, her parents, and brother, Hubert, once lived at Temple Alice, a crumbling mansion somewhere in Ireland. They lived the high life, hunting, shooting, fishing, money no object. But the story begins with Aroon, her sick mother, and Rose, a sort of house-keeper living in a small house and fighting over whether the invalid should be given rabbit to eat. It's clear they are in very straightened circumstances. The narrator, Aroon, goes right back to the beginning to tell us all about her life...

I didn't realise this was a Virago Modern Classic until I had finished it, as of course the old green covers are no more. I probably would have had more of an idea what to expect if I'd known. This is not a cheerful story. Aroon's history is one of real sadness. She's tall and ungainly - on the big side as grows into womanhood. She doesn't realise it but from everything she says it's quite clear the rest of the family regard her as a bit of a joke. They keep things from her on a tragic scale - the family finances, her brother's sexuality, even her own sexuality is a complete mystery to her. At the same time they fill her head with that sense of upper-class superiority that will make her totally incapable of coping with the realities of life once the inevitable happens. The whole thing is quite appalling.

This is a brilliantly written novel. I know very little about Molly Keane other than this was one of her later books, written after she'd given up writing for many years. The sadness of the story is almost overwhelming - a couple of times I had to set it aside as I didn't want to read what was coming next. It's an odd kind of story where the narrator is completely decieved as to events but the reader is as privy to them as the other characters. I don't know much about it but this seems to me to be very clever writing indeed. At some stage I would like to read more of Molly Keane's work, but perhaps not just yet.

Book 22 for J.Kaye's Support your local Library challenge.



DesLily said...

glad you liked the susan hill book.. i almost got her woman in black but found it expensive for such a short book.. i guess I'm spoiled with the good chunksters I've had lately (get a lot for the money w/ those lol.. but only when they are good)..
I hope you are feeling better.

Stacy said...

I am looking forward to reading Hill's Howards End is on the Landing but would also like to read some her fiction. Of these two works which would you recommend I begin with? Perhaps I will have time to read one before Halloween but must read Uncle Montague first:)

Cath said...

Pat: we're lucky here in that we often find books in charity shops. I still can't believe I found Susan Hill's newish book in one for 80p (a dollar or so) when the asking price is £9.99. I wouldn't pay that because, like you said, Pat, it's too small a book for that much money. The Woman in Black is excellent but again not worth a heap of money.

Feeling so-so at the moment, felt quite grotty this afternoon so didn't do much except read.

Book Psmith: I have Howards End is on the Landing on pre-order too. Can't wait for it to arrive.

I think I would go for The Woman in Black out of the two fictional books, very atmospheric and genuinely scary, imo. It's a small book (160 pgs.) so you might want to try for a secondhand AM copy or library book.

Can't wait to hear what you think of Uncle Montague!

Paperback Reader said...

I loved The Woman in Black and have a copy of The Man in the Picture from the library to read for R.I.P. IV; hopefully I can squeeze it in during the coming week.

I also have Howards End is on the Landing pre-ordered and I am very excited.

I think Good Behaviour is one of the Molly Keane books that I have on the shelf.

monix said...

I'm not a Susan Hill fan but I love Molly Keane. I think Good Behaviour was the first Virago (lovely old green version) that I bought. Since then I have read most of her work, always brilliantly written, full of humour but with that edge that can make you very uncomfortable. She also wrote plays and novels as M.J. Farrell.

Cath said...

Paperback Reader: The Man in the Mirror is a short book, I read it in a day or two, so hopefully you'll have time for it.

I'm ridiculously excited about Howards End is on the Landing too.

I'll certainly be keeping a look out in charity shops for more books by MK.

Maureen: Are there any Molly Keanes that you think are particulalry good? Hopefully the library might come up trumps if you can recommend any.

monix said...

I think "Loving and Giving" is probably her best but "Devoted Ladies", "Time after Time" and "The Rising Tide" are all worthy of reading again and again. I have Molly Keane phases, when I take all the books off the shelf and work my way through them.

Cath said...

Brilliant, thank, M. I've just checked the Devon library catalogue and Tiv. has Good Behaviour but it's out. Devoted Ladies is at Pinhoe which I pass every time I go to my daughter's, so will nip in there and nab that sometime. Time after Time is at Teignmouth which has a lovely library so no hardship to pop in there next we're down there. The others you mention are in Exeter main library so I can reserve those at some stage or nip in with my daughter. The assistant in Teignmouth referred to us as 'library nerds' on Thursday and said they liked people like us. LOL.

Anonymous said...

I also really enjoyed the Woman in Black and I have been thinking about reading some more Susan Hill, I actually decided not to buy the Man in the Picture because it was so short, thinking just like DesLily that I would spend the money on something a bit longer. Sometimes it is nice to just have something short and gripping to hand, so I really must buy this one.
Hope the cold is better, there really is nothing worse, you just feel miserable.

Vipula said...

Hasn't Susan Hill written a the sequel to Rebecca? I have never read anything by her but her name keeps popping up on a lot of blogs.

Cath said...

Book Pusher: I wouldn't pay £9.99 for this book when it first came out and couldn't believe my luck to pick it up in a charity shop for 80p. So I don't blame you at all for not wanting to pay a lot for it. Perhaps Amazon Market or eBay might offer a cheaper copy? I don't know if you like non-fiction but her book, The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year, is just lovely.

Vipula: Yes, Susan Hill did write a sequel to Rebecca. I haven't read it but it gets mixed reviews, so I can't say whether it's any good or not. She's also the author of the Simon Serailler crime series, of which I've read the first book and liked it a lot.

Cath said...

Maureen: just laughing at myself with my last comment to you. Of course Good Behaviour is checked out of Tiverton library - I've got it!! Honestly, the older I get the more addled my brain becomes...