The Go-Between

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

“Do you remember that book in which this boy saw two people having sex and then lost his memory?” This is how my friend introduced me to this book during a conversation. After wrongly guessing Lady Chatterly’s Lover, google provided the name of the book: The Go-Between.

Published in 1953, The Go-Between is a book by British writer L.P Hartley and it is set in 1900. The book opens with the iconic opening line quoted above, and we are introduced to the protagonist; sixty-something year old Leo Colston as he comes across a diary from his childhood, which brings back memories of a traumatic incident that he has repressed for decades.

The memories are from fifty years prior in 1900, when as an almost 13 year old he is invited by the family of his schoolmate, Marcus Maudsley, to spend the summer at their country estate. At Brandham Hall, Leo is transported from his middle class life with his widowed mother, to the grand upper class life of the Maudsleys. Even his clothing is out of place, and for the first time he is aware of social inferiority.

Hitherto I had always taken my appearance for granted; now I saw how inelegant it was, compared with theirs; and at the same time, for I was acutely aware of social inferiority. I felt utterly out of place among these smart rich people, and a misfit everywhere.

Leo becomes completely infatuated with Marcus’ older sister Marian, who he sees as his first encounter with beauty, a pure goddess in human form. Marian is to be engaged to the Viscount of Trimingham; a disfigured war veteran named Hugh (this sparks numerous Hugh-You misunderstandings throughout the book).

So that is what it is to be beautiful, I thought, and for a time my idea of her as a person was confused and even eclipsed by the abstract idea of beauty that she represented.

She was not of our clay, she was a goddess, and we must not think that by worshipping her we could lower her to our level.

Leo comes into contact with Ted Burgess-a tenant farmer-and he soon starts passing messages between Ted and Marian. It is (or should be) immediately clear that there is a clandestine relationship between Ted and Marian, but sweet naive Leo is completely clueless. He assumes there must be some business between the two, and his imagination even goes as far as to contemplate the possibility of them being involved in a murder legal case. Upon realising the true nature of the correspondence, Leo becomes quite uncomfortable with his role as a go-between, and he worries about how the illicit affair will affect Hugh. Though Leo is aware that Ted is from a lower social class, he does not understand why Marian and Ted cannot be married.

“Not Adam and Eve, after eating the apple, could have been more upset than I was.”

Leo seems to slowly break down from the weight of the secrecy and deception. His experience at Brandham Hall which had been relatively pleasant and even incredible in some parts, is now tainted by all this pressure and he just wants to go home and leave all of this behind. He makes up his mind to stop passing the messages but his resolve is shot down and he is persuaded to continue. Childishly, he thinks that if he stops passing the messages then they will have to quit their relationship and Marian can focus on her engagement to Hugh. Of course this does not happen, and in reality the lovers are caught. This leads to disastrous consequences and Leo’s full nervous breakdown and repression of memories of the summer.

In the epilogue, the older Leo reflects on how that summer altered the course of his life, and shaped the man he is now. He decides to go back to Brandham Hall which has changed in the time since he was there. Marian is still there, much older and estranged from her grandson who finds it difficult to come to terms with the events of half a century ago. Marian once again asks Leo to act as a go-between and talk to her grandson.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. First off, it was really easy and pleasant to read, and I only skipped past a few descriptions (which is a big deal for me because I have little patience and always skip right past long flowery descriptions). Because it was set in 1900 I assumed it would be full of a language of another time but while there were references to that age, the language itself was fine. The writing is gorgeous and the story is interesting so every time I picked up the book I was completely enraptured by the story.

Thanks to my friend I knew that Leo was going to see some people having sex and I spent the whole time eagerly anticipating this climax. Every time he went on a walk I thought oh boy this is it! It came right at the end. I wanted more! I wanted to see in detail the full fallout and scandal rather than just references to it in the epilogue. But I guess that would have been another book.

I very much enjoyed entering Leo Colston’s little world, watching his little idiosyncrasies and moral dilemmas. It was interesting to see the inner workings of the mind of a 12 year old Victoria schoolboy and I was amused by his constant references and adherence to the schoolboy code. I also liked the glimpse into upper class Victorian life; the general fuss and flair of that time. One of the things that fascinates me about that age is their dedication to dressing up and how much of a ceremony it was. Nowadays you see people just wearing whatever-tracksuits to dinner, biker shorts to funerals-which makes it funny to see Leo agonise so much over his wardrobe and being teased over packing the wrong outfits. The existence of distinct social classes and resulting prejudice is the crux of the story. The class prejudice still exists today of course, but it was much more enforced back then and I got Bridgerton vibes.

I was sitting with mama pretending to be a villager-poor dear, she didn’t want them on both sides of her-and she was convulsed, and so was I… (This line had me laughing so loud at 6am)

I did feel sorry for Leo at some points. Poor boy was so naïve and this was preyed upon by the adults around him. He internalised so much and sadly took more blame than he should have, which is why the experiences of one summer when he was barely 13 years old was enough to alter his life. This is the real age of innocence (no shade to Ms. Wharton). Leo is so blissfully naive that he did not even know what spooning was or how a horse comes to be pregnant with a foal. Thirteen years olds of today are definitely more aware.

With the completion of The Go-Between, I am pleased to announce that I read three books in January 2021! I am quite proud of myself and I am already on my fourth book of the year. Though I said I wouldn’t buy anymore books until I have read every book in my collection, I did go ahead and buy two books. I was looking through some quotes from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine which reminded me how much I related to the protagonist. My sister had lent me her copy to read and I decided I needed to have my own copy. Of course the eBay bookstore was doing a sale so I got another book as well.

I will end this with another quote from The Go-Between, one that so perfectly encapsulates the book.

“Was there a telephone here in your day?”
“No,” I replied. “It might have made a great difference if there had been.”

The Fishermen.

Those the gods have chosen to destroy, they inflict with madness.

Well folks, 2021 is off to a great start. I finished reading my first book of the year, which is an impressive feat seeing as I barely read five books in 2020. I read a book, full-stop and that is something to celebrate given my attachment to all my screens. A dear friend gifted me The Fishermen for Christmas and it was a very lovely present indeed.

The Fishermen is the debut novel by Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma. Set in the mid 90s in Akure, a town in Western Nigeria, it follows four young brothers who take advantage of their strict father’s work transfer to a distant city and subsequent absence from home to become fishermen. Unbeknownst to their parents, the brothers and their friends go fishing at the forbidden Omi-Ala river for six weeks, catching fishes and tadpoles. On one of these trips, they encounter Abulu the local madman who predicts that the oldest boy will be killed by a fisherman, which the boy interprets to mean one of his brothers. This prophecy sets off a tragic chain of events that wrecks the family and changes them irreparably.

The writing is so good. The story is told from the first person point of view of nine year old Benjamin, the youngest of the four brothers (who by the way have two additional siblings who are too young to meaningfully impact the story). Each chapter begins with a statement-a metaphor or simile comparing one thing to another- before then poetically expanding on the statement. Specifically, each member of the family is likened to an animal, usually a bird, and then the writer describes how that person embodies that animal’s characteristics. Two examples:

Mother was a falconer:
The one who stood on the hills and watched, trying to stave off whatever ill she perceived was coming to her children. She owned copies of our minds in the pockets of her own mind and so could easily sniff troubles early in their forming, the same way sailors discern the forming foetus of a coming storm.

Hatred is a leech:
The thing that sticks to a person’s skin; that feeds off them and drains the sap out of one’s spirit. It changes a person, and does not leave until it has sucked the last drop of peace from them. It clings to one’s skin, the way a leech does, burrowing deeper and deeper into the epidermis, so that to pull the parasite off the skin is to tear out that part of the flesh, and to kill it is self-flagellating.

Flashback is liberally used in the book; most of the pivotal moments are presented in flashbacks, and I did not mind this. I particularly enjoyed the way he wrote about the past and then connected them to present events. The writer’s descriptions are vivid! There is one scene where he describes the various smells of the madman and it was tough to read. I swear I could smell it. Ugh. He seamlessly wove in the political unrest of Nigeria in the late 90s: Sani Abacha, MKO Abiola, the 93 elections; and there are also references to the Nigerian Civil War.

This is the first book in a while that moved me and elicited a myriad of emotions. Actually that’s not true; I do in fact get too caught up in books and films, and I get so annoyed for the duration- but it is usually the stupidity of the characters and foolishness of the plot and silliness of the writing that gets my goat. In The Fishermen, however I was moved by the writer’s masterful skill in creating drama and suspense. I had my heart in my mouth several times and gasped out loud a few times. The sense of impending doom is heavy throughout the book, right from the moment of the prophecy. I felt so bad for the family as they became undone, one by one. It was fascinating watching Ikenna- the oldest brother- slowly deteriorate physically and mentally as he became engulfed in this cloud of fear and suspicion brought on by the prophecy.

I once heard that when fear takes possession of the heart of a person, it diminishes them. This could be said of my brother, for when the fear took possession of his heart, it robbed him of many things-his peace, his well-being, his relationships, his health, and even his faith.

I didn’t read the synopsis at the back of the novel, so as not to ruin the suspense even a little, so I was unaware of the prophecy until I read it. Even after the prophecy was revealed and the reader could guess what was going to happen, it was still a thrill getting there.

The book may not be for everyone, but I personally could find no faults. Quite a few people have compared this to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is actually referenced in the novel. Perhaps it’s because Things Fall Apart was in a rural colonial setting but I did not see the similarities. The feeling I felt while reading The Fishermen is similar to the feeling I felt when I read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie- just pure happiness and excitement at such beautiful writing, and the discovery of a new author. Similar to Purple Hibiscus, I found the end a tad confusing and I have a few questions. Still, this did not at all diminish the wonder of the book and I am glad to have read it.

Chigozie Obioma is a gifted storyteller and the story he tells is beautiful and rich. I am effusive in my praise because that’s how I felt while reading it. I searched online for reviews and to my pleasure they are largely positive, mostly echoing my own thoughts. The Fishermen deserves all the accolades. A book I won’t forget any time soon, and I will be checking out the writer’s other work.

Books books books!

First off, Happy World Book Day!  Well it was on the 1st of March but I just found out about it so yeah happy world book day.

So far this year I have started reading six books- I have finished four, still reading one and have given up on another. Let’s go through them briefly shall we?

Murder on the Orient Express-Agatha Christie: I only heard about the book when the movie came out. The film posters looked interesting enough to make me want to see the film. Due to work and life I did not have time to go to the cinema so when I went to the supermarket and saw the book on sale I bought it. I then began an internal dilemma about film and books: Is it better to see the movie before reading the book or read the book before watching the film? I knew if I watched the film first then the suspense would be gone thereby ruining the experience of reading the book. On the other hand reading the book first could build up expectations that the film may not live up to. In the end the decision was made for me when a friend asked me to go watch the film in the theatre. I’m not sure what it was exactly-perhaps the acting or the plot- but I did not enjoy the film and by the time the suspense was resolved I was too tired to care. After seeing the film and not caring for it, I knew it would be a battle to read the book and it was. Eventually I said to myself “no more” and I put down the book.

Born a Crime-Trevor Noah: I bought this book last year when I saw a tweet professing that the book was amazing and made them love Trevor Noah. I must say the book met every expectation I had and then some. It was very easy and pleasant to read; the stories were interesting and recounted in a funny manner. The book also gives an insight into South African culture, particularly during apartheid. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Catcher in the Rye-JD Salinger: I bought this book because it is a classic and as with all classics I wanted to see what the hullabaloo was all about. Just before I started reading it a friend mentioned that there was a link between the book and serial killers. A perfunctory search revealed that the man who murdered John Lennon and the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Regan both read the book which gave rise to the theory. The book is written from the point of view of its protagonist Holden Caulfield. Even as I read and enjoyed it I knew that a lot of people would hate it and deride its status as a classic. I get it, the book has no purpose; it just follows the ramblings of this teenage boy who thinks everything and everyone is “phony.” I am not too big on books that do not have a clear plot and resolution ( as we’ll see soon) but I really did enjoy reading this book and I especially appreciated the character. I guess what I like about the book was the book is the protagonist and his ramblings. We get into his psyche and are taken on this ride through his teenage angst, his likes, dislikes (there are a lot!), failings, and his own phoniness.  This is one of the few times that I actually missed the character when I was done with the book. The way the book is written also adds to its charm. The book kills me, it just does.

and finally…

Kafka on the shore-Haruki Murakami: Boy o boy where do I start? I first came across the author on goodreads. His name sounded so interesting I had to read something from him. Of course I could not decide which one of his books to get so I saved them all to my amazon wishlist. A few weeks back I saw a comment saying Kafka on the shore is one of the best books they have read so I decided that was a good place to start. I must say I enjoyed reading the book- I was in awe of the writing and the authors imagination. Sometimes I read a book and think “oh I could write a book too“; other times I read a book and think “I will never be able to write anything this good, my imagination does not have the range she could never“. Kafka on the shore was the latter. The book follows two people; a young boy who runs away from home and renames himself Kafka, and an elderly man Nakata who lost his mental acuity in a mysterious childhood incident.
Halfway through the book I realised we were entering Helen Oyeyemi territory of METAFICTION. Whilst I appreciated the writing, I cannot say that I am a fan of books in this genre. Not only is there no clear plot and eventual resolution, the supernatural is casually interspersed with reality and no one bats an eye. In Harry Potter, there is a lot of supernatural things but this is expected and acknowledged. In Kafka on the shore there is a lot that is not explained, so much that I needed to be resolved. The book is not as confusing as Ms. Oyeyemi’s books but I resent the fact that so many strings are left loose. I really am accustomed to traditional story structures where there is a climax and a resolution-I need my closure dammit! I wouldn’t mind so much if it was a regular book like Catcher in the Rye but when you add other-wordly stuff then I require an explanation thank you. Now that I have read Kafka on the Shore I am not too eager to read other books by Murakami but I still have one of his books to read so I’ll have to power through and hope for the best. Kafka on the Shore was a good book and though I did not get the closure I was looking for the stories in the book were beautiful to read.

Another book that I have started (last year) and probably will never finish is Among the Lemon Trees by Nadia Marks. I just cannot get into it. I am currently reading The Millstone by Margaret Drabble and so far it is alright but it falls into the “I can definitely write a book” category,

That’s it for now. Here’s to many more wonderful books!