Saturday 18 March 2017

North Face

So I'm standing in the Post Office queue yesterday afternoon... four or five people in front of me, my mind wandering, as it does, cogitating on books I want to read and those I'm reading at the moment etc. etc. North Face was going round my head, where it's set, its characters and so on, when I suddenly focussed on the woman standing in front of me. She was wearing a dark grey quilted anorak type of thing and there on the back of it in the right hand corner was a maker's logo. And what did it say? The North Face, that's what. This kind of thing happens to me all the time...

Anyway, enough about coincidences, North Face by Mary Renault:

A group of people converge on a quiet B&B on the North Devon Coast, just a few years after World War Two. Miss Searle is an academic, a teacher, and a bit on the snooty side. Miss Fisher is a nursing sister, very down to earth, seen it all. Neil Langton is also an academic and teacher, he likes climbing and walking and is nursing a tragedy in his past and has yet come to terms with his grief. The two women try to communicate with him but he's not forthcoming, keeping himself to himself. Two more guests arrive. A young girl, Ellen, about 19, and a young man, Phillip. They arrive separately and affect surprise to see each other telling everyone that they are acquaintances at work. The nursing sister puts two and two together...

Next morning, Phillip takes off in a hurry. Something clearly wasn't right. The guests assume the girl will go too but she doesn't. She stays. Out one day, Neil comes across her, stuck on a rockface and has to rescue her. From then on the two slowly become friends and more, but naturally nothing is ever straightforward especially when the two people involved both have a lot of sadness in their past.

This was a random grab from the library. Well, not that random as I've felt for a while that I should read something by Mary Renault. What I want to read is actually her Alexander trilogy but naturally my library doesn't have it so I just sort of grabbed North Face to sample the author's writing.

I wish I'd liked it as much as I wanted to. On paper it should have been perfect, set in North Devon, an area I've lived in or around for over twenty years, and involving a bit of rock climbing which I don't do but like to read about. It *should* have been right up my alley. So, what was wrong?

Well firstly, to be positive, there was an excellent sense of place. The sleepy, summery atmosphere of the North Devon coast and countryside in the late 1940s was spot-on as it hasn't actually changed all that much. I recognised various places... even if one or two were actually over the border in Somerset, no matter, that aspect of the book was delightful. I also enjoyed the rock climbing bits, the danger was very well portrayed... edge of seat stuff towards the end. Brilliant.

What I'm ambivilent about is all the internalising of emotions that was going on in the book. The author clearly had a good grasp of psychology, people's selfish motives for what they think and do was nicely put over and I found that interesting. But at times I got so bogged down in the writing of it that I had to read some sections several times and still didn't really know what she meant or sometimes what had actually happened! It was quite frustrating to be honest and I had to face the fact that I might not be intelligent enough to understand parts of the book, which is quite sobering. LOL!

The one thing that did come over very well was how damaging to people's personal lives the war was. Even if you didn't lose someone, the effect on marriages and children was often catastrophic. The other thing I was struck by was the social mores of the period. I recognised all of them in my parents and grandparents, especially as regards the behaviour of women and how a reputation could be ruined in moments. Men had a lot more leeway of course and it was interesting how Neil thought of the two women in the B&B as unmarriageable old spinsters when they were around the same age as him... mid forties. This was very much a book of its time. Attitudes were very entrenched and the idea that anyone should have sex before marriage was so unthinkable that not only did it cause terrible gossiping, it made sensitive ladies like Miss Searle quite ill and write 'letters'. Fascinating stuff from our perspective in the 21st. century.

So, I was a bit hot and cold about this one. Gave it three stars on Goodreads when plenty of others would probably give it at least a four. I'm glad I read it and will try a few more of Mary Renault's book, especially the Alexander & Theseus trilogies if I can find them.



DesLily said...

hmmm, disappointment is not what we want when we read. I wonder why the library doesn't have her series that you want to read?? I know they can't have everything but come on.. they are supposed to have what "we" want to read!lol I hope the next read is better!

BooksPlease said...

Interesting - I read two of Mary Renault's books in my 20s or 30s - The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, loved them!

I really dislike it when I find the writing is so unclear that I can't work out what happened or what the author meant - you're not alone! I very much doubt that it was your lack of intelligence. More likely it's the writing that's at fault for being unclear - or maybe it was meant to be ambiguous, which is also annoying.

In my 20s I did do a bit of rock climbing (one of my husband's many sporting activities that I was useless at) and did get stuck half-way up a climb - petrifying!

Judith said...

Your description of this book has made me tremendously curious about it. In fact, I'm going to try to find it and read it. And, in my reading lifetime, sometimes I think Mary Renault can make things more DENSE and in-understandable than they need be. I remember my mother, way, way back, disliking Renault's writing for this reason. And she was a reading nut and librarian. But in my youth and twenties I just so happened to read several of Renault's books that I liked, so this title sounds interesting to say the least. Thank you!

Cath said...

Pat: I expect Devon Library catalogue does have it, but not my town library. I just need to reserve it but I have so many other books to read... lol! Exactly... they really ought to have what we want, when we want it. LOL!

Margaret: Those are the first two books of her Theseus series I think? I'd like to read those as well as her Alexander trilogy. Not sure why but I would expect them to be a bit different to this standalone book.

Thankyou for saying you don't think it's my intelligence. The book did leave me feeling somewhat lacking... but only bits of it. Really it was a 3.5 on Goodreads for me. I do wish GR allowed us to give half marks.

I bet it was petrifying being stuck halfway up a rock face! And having read this book I now know quite a lot more about how that feels. I can't stand heights at all so I can only imagine and shudder.

Judith: How interesting that your mother disliked Renault's writing for this very reason. Not just me then but I'm not going to let it put me off as I quite like a challenge. I hope you can find it as it is well worth a read and I would be interested to hear what you think.