Sunday, May 22, 2011

Touch Not the Cat

The title: Touch Not the CatThe author: Mary Stewart
Publication: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977Got it from: Hannelore's, 2010

How is it that I have gone all my life without ever having read a Mary Stewart book? How is it that I have waited so long, after so many online recommendations by people who love the same books I do, to read this book? And how is it that Mary Stewart has managed to take a premise that could be so silly and instead write something that is so wonderful?

Bryony Ashley is the only daughter of the esteemed Ashley clan. Her ancestors were noblemen, but it is now the 1970's and their money has run out. The only thing they have remaining is their enormous, beautiful estate. But Ashley Court has become neglected over the years and is starting to deteriorate. Bryony is in her early twenties and her mother is no longer alive. She grew up on the estate with her father and spent her childhood playing with her three boy cousins and the son of a local farmer who lives on the estate. Bryony also has another companion - the friend she has communicated psychically with since childhood. The Ashleys, you see, had a witch in their history, and ever since then, various family members have been able to communicate with each other via their thoughts. Because of this, Bryony thinks her secret friend (who becomes her secret lover) must be one of her cousins.

The story begins when Bryony is in Spain, and she receives a message from her secret lover that her father has been killed. She arrives back in Ashley Court, grieving, and discovers one of her cousins there. Being female, she is not allowed to inherit the estate, so it is going to her cousins' family instead. As time goes on and Bryony sees past her grief, she realizes that her cousins may be behind the disappearance of several valuable objects from the court. Worse, her father's death may not be an accident. As he lay dying, her father's last words were a riddle that she must solve, along with the true meaning of the Ashley motto, "Touch not the cat."

At first I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book. I thought Bryony was going to be too young and immature, but I ended up really liking her character, as she behaves with dignity well beyond her years. (In fact, I don't think I would have taken the destruction of my childhood home as calmly as she did). And of course, the Big Secret - the identity of her lover - is a perfect reveal toward the end. At first you are worried, because of the cousins' duplicity, that Bryony is going to be burned - but you needn't fear, this is a Jane Austen romance, not a Bronte one. The big reveal is a romantic moment that moved me in a way that most romance novels fail to do, being so sweet, so wonderful and so right. Of course you know who it is when you look back and see all the signs laid out for you.

But it was the writing - oh, the writing! - that literally blew me away. This book was meant to be savoured, slowly. It simply cannot be read quickly. To do so is not merely to miss the many subtleties and hidden meanings, but to miss the point of the book entirely. Read it a few pages at a time, and be amazed at the way it creeps over you, gothic novel that it is, and gets under your skin. There is so much going on, so much complexity, but at the same time it's the simple evocation of the place that gets to you. You are there on a summer's evening at this sprawling, crumbling estate, and you can almost smell the grass and see the shadows. Trust me, you will never look at a hedge maze the same way again.

What I love most about the writing is the way so much is told by what is left unsaid. A lot of authors love to beat you over the head with a stupid stick but Mary Stewart assumes her readers are a lot smarter than that, without being in the least bit pretentious, of course. It's a summer novel with weight to it, and I look forward to many happy hours with her other books in years to come.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


The title: AtlanticThe author: Simon Winchester
Publication: Harper, 2010Got it from: La library

April was a disappointing month for me, reading-wise, since most of my reading material was for work and I didn't really enjoy it
. (Dragon Tattoo, I'm looking at you). But one of the good things was that Atlantic was one of the books I got to book-talk at my library, so that meant I finally got to finish it.

I love Simon Winchester. I first discovered him when I was in university and I won the British High Commissioner's award, and my prize was a signed copies of two of his books (The Professor and the Madman and The Map at the Edge of the World), which my professor had him sign for me when he visited my university. I quickly became enamored of his writing and had the chance to meet him three years later when I was doing my library degree in Halifax, when I was the last person remaining at the Lord Nelson after his talk and I excitedly had him sign his latest book, Krakatoa. I remain in constant awe of the breadth of his travels, his sweeping narrative storytelling and his ability to ferret out the most fascinating little-known facts about the world. So you can imagine my happiness when I discovered that his next book would be about the ocean I grew up next to and adored.

Of course it would be impossible to write the entire history of the Atlantic, so Winchester has done something ingenious: he gives life to the Atlantic by treating it as a human being and chronicling its birth, life, and eventual death. He does this by dividing the book into seven chapters, each corresponding to one of Shakespeare's seven ages of man (the infant, the schoolchild, the lover, etc.) Humankind has only recently - since the age of Columbus - discovered that the Atlantic was in fact a separate ocean, rather than a dark, treacherous, unthinkably huge body of water. Here are just some of the subject covered by this book, each one made fascinating: Pangaea, the Lusitania. pirates, the Middle Passage, the age of exploration, the evolution of shipbuilding, the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fisheries, early aviation, the Falkland Islands invasion, the Vikings, Hurricane Katrina.

Through the book one thing is clear, and that is Winchester's reverence for and love of this ocean. The sad end to this tale is that we have come to disrespect the Atlantic. We cross it in our airplanes, not realizing its immense size, its awesome power or its incredible history. It has always been a dream of mine to cross the Atlantic by boat; reading this book makes me want to do it even more, if only to see it as it really is. This is a wonderful book, one that will surely resonate with me for years to come.