Because I love making reading lists almost as much as I love reading the books that I add to them, I have big plans for my MustReadEverything Reading Projects, but then there are dozens of other books that I also want to read. This year so far, I have reread seven and another eleven books from these lists, including these two.
Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind is a delicately layered narrative which considers the ways in which we relate to — and through,and in — landscape. The novel is set in London, England and examines Matthew Halland’s key relationships as he navigates a failed marriage, fatherhood in the territory of divorce, and the earliest states of his rebuilding.
Other relationships are also considered, for instance, that of history and language with the city’s residents (past and present). “Language takes up the theme, an arbitrary scatter of names that juxtaposes commerce and religion, battles and conquests, kings, queens and potentates, that reaches back a thousand years or ten, providing in the end a dictionary of reference for those who will listen. Cheapside, Temple, Trafalgar, Quebec, a profligacy of Victorias and Georges and Cumberlands and Bedfords – there it all is, on a million pairs of lips every day, on and on, the imperishable clamour of those who have been here before.”
There are many scenes in which dialogue and personal exchange are central to the story, but also several long passages which reflect on psychological and philosophical matters of interest. “This is the landscape of the psyche – a coded medley of allusions in which the private and the universal are inextricably entwined. Here the mind creates its own images, a brilliant mythic universe in which there is no chronology, in which the laws of nature are suspended. Here the narrator is the Creator, setting his own stage for the flickering, fragmented narrative of obsession and anxiety.”
Just as geography contains and reflects history, one cannot overlook the underlying matter of time’s passing and the endless cycle of birth-growth-decay. Matthew considers this in architectural terms but also in a personal context, as he recognizes the shift in emotions in his own relationships and in his presence.
“‘I need London voices and dirty streets and drunks in the tube and bodies in the river.’
She laughed. ‘And other things. But the point is that you have been digested. The city has taken you over, in a sense.’”
References to the underground (literal and, in the context of his work, metaphorical in the form of, for instance, shady business dealings he observes) are mirrored in more personal scenes, so that the novel does not become a treatise or a diatribe. It remain’s Matthew’s story.
“The doctor held the X-rays up to the light. And Matthew saw his child’s skull, a small and fragile thing of light and shade – the curve of the cranium, the eye and nose sockets, the jaws, the teeth. That most potent of all images. And her hand – a tiny, delicate fan of bone. He stared, in his numbed state of relief and of grief, amazed and chilled that these structures should be thus revealed, beneath the warm and silken skin that he knew so well.”
His daughter Jane’s characterization reminds readers of the author’s experience creating child narrators; she is a wholly believable girl and her relationship with her father is all-the-more touching for its realism. Readers familiar with Penelope Lively’s earlier works will also recognize her preoccupation with time, in lives and in narratives. “There is no sequence in the city, no then and now, all is continuous. Equally, all is both immediate and inaccessible.”
City of the Mind is not as well known as the author’s Booker-prize-winning novel, Moon Tiger, but it would serve as an excellent introduction to Penelope Lively’s works, just as it will satisfy readers devoted to her craft.
Young girls are at the heart of Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, as well. The events, however, are relayed after some time has passed, “the years folded up like pocket handkerchiefs”.
Even in her first novel, the author exhibits a firm grasp of all narrative styles, from stream-of-consciousness passages to realistic dialogue to passages of poetic description.
“Beats me. Just nasty.”
“Well, they ought to take her out of school.”
“Ought to. She carry some of the blame.”
“Oh, come on. She ain’t but twelve or so.”
“Yeah. But you never know. How come she didn’t fight him?”
“Maybe she did.”
“Yeah? You never know.”
This passage reveals two grown women discussing the experiences of a young girl, but the bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with the two sisters’ observations of Pecola Breedlove’s suffering, which has given given them a new perspective on the injustices in their own lives.
Theirs has been a hard existence. And the emotive aspects of the story are most impressive in ways in which they permeate the story, so that even a description of a sofa holds a striking intensity.
“There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference. The furniture had aged without ever having become familiar. People had owned it, but never known it. No one had lost a penny or a brooch under the cushions of either sofa and remembered the place and time of the loss or the finding. No one had clucked and said, ‘But I had it just a minute ago. I was sitting right there talking to…’ or “Here it is. It must have slipped down while I was feeding the baby!’ No one had given birth in one of the beds—or remembered with fondness the peeled paint places, because that’s what the baby, when he learned to pull himself up, used to pick loose.”
In a world in which Shirley Temple is the ideal, girls who do not have blonde curls and blue eyes and pale skin are inherently inferior, and the longing to be “other” takes a variety of forms. And the parents who were once children in this world have felt and dealt sorrows themselves.
“Instead of the dull pain of a winter strap, there were these new green switches that lost their sting long after the whipping was over. There was a nervous meanness in these long twigs that made us long for the steady stroke of a strap or the firm but honest slap of a hairbrush. Even now spring for me is shot through with the remembered ache of switchings, and forsythia holds no cheer.”
The Bluest Eye is a gripping read. The pain is presented in a context which does not afford quick dismissal, for all that it is a short novel best read in a single-sitting. And Pecola’s story is, truly, unforgettable.
Both Penelope Lively and Toni Morrison are on my list of MRE (MustReadEverything) authors, with City of the Mind a fresh read and The Bluest Eye a reread.
Have you recently added a favourite author to your reading list?
What’s the last book you reread?