Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose: Mrs Dalloway goes to South Africa

Cover imageIt was clear even before I opened Fiona Melrose’s new novel that it was going to be an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: it follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013. Just as Woolf’s novel reflected the preoccupations of her time, so Johannesburg offers us a snapshot of South Africa’s capital on the day after the death of Nelson Mandela, regarded by many as his country’s saviour.

Gini has flown in from New York for four days to arrange her mother Neve’s eightieth birthday party. She knows that Neve is resistant to the idea of celebration, forever carping about small imperfections and making clear her disappointment in Gini’s single, childless state. It’s a day in which she will seek out the finest blooms in the garden, venture into the supermarket to buy chickens and search for the family dog who finds herself on the wrong side of a locked gate. As she sets about her work, constantly anxious that all will go well, Gini will encounter many characters: Peter, now a corporate lawyer his back turned on his socialist past, still unable to shrug off his love for Gini in the twenty years since she left South Africa; Richard, widowed and longing for the solace of the coast; Mercy, the family servant who lives far from home and thinks of her children, and September who has been protesting the violent suppression of a strike. Mandela’s death and the grief surrounding it is the constant background beat to this day which will prove momentous for some and perhaps redemptive for others.

As you would expect there are many nods to Woolf’s celebrated novel throughout Melrose’s own – from Gini’s Aunt Virginia, a writer who excoriated apartheid policies and walked into the sea, to the careful selection of the gorgeously described flowers that will adorn the table at the party. It’s all beautifully done, nothing clunky or self-conscious as Melrose deftly knits the many threads of her narrative together, shifting smoothly between her characters and offering a microcosm of this complex country where white privilege often shuts itself away behind razor wire and navigates the constant stream of black hawkers from comfortable, air-conditioned cars. The dog’s escape takes both Gini and Neve into places that their privileged position has never transported them, despite Gini’s altogether more enlightened attitude to race. It is, of course, far more complicated than that as this absorbing, beautifully structured novel makes clear. Corruption and racism may never be far away but perhaps there is some hope of redemption. ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ spoken by September’s sister is a phrase which resonates throughout this ambitious, expertly executed novel: we are all our brothers’ keepers wherever we live and whoever we are, although some of us seem not to recognise that.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Picnic at Hanging Rock to A Vindication of the Rights of Women #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month’s starting point is Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock chosen by Brona. I’m pretty sure I’ve read the book but what really sticks in my mind is Peter Weir’s mesmeric film adaptation which I must have seen at least four times. Those inappropriately clad young ladies, all white muslin dresses and black boots, climbing Hanging Rock in blistering heat then disappearing without trace made a striking image on the big screen. It’s rare for me to think that a film adaptation either matches or eclipses the book but very occasionally it does happen which leads me to my second book.

I’m not a huge fan of Virginia Woolf but I have read and enjoyed Orlando, although not as many times as I’ve seen Sally Potter’s sumptuous film adaptation which *whisper it* I prefer. In the book the eponymous protagonist begins as a young nobleman in Elizabethan England and ends as a young woman in 1928, the year women were enfranchised; the movie takes her up to the 1990s. Archly comic, the film is full of gorgeous tableaux with Tilda Swinton as a fabulous Orlando, charmingly gauche and suitably androgynous, seamlessly changing gender after a century or so.

One of Woolf’s best known novels follows a day in the life of an upper-class woman in post-First World War England which leads me to John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips who puts on his suit, packs his briefcase and leaves his South London house one warm July Monday morning. He’s worked as an accountant for over thirty years and has been made redundant but can’t quite bring himself to tell Mrs Phillips. So begins a day on which Mr Phillips will chat with a pornographer, visit the Tate Gallery and become caught up in one of the biggest dramas of his life. Strewn with coincidences, this take on Mrs Dalloway gets under the skin of middle-aged suburbia in a funny yet poignant portrayal of a man a little lost in the world.

John Lanchester wrote a post-financial crash novel called Capital, dramatized for TV last year, as did Alex Preston. This Bleeding City is about a hedge fund trader, freshly graduated, who becomes distracted by a beautiful woman and a non-stop, drug-fuelled culture of excess. I have to confess that although I’ve read this I had to sneak a quick look at Goodreads to remind myself of it. What did stay with me was the knowledge that Preston’s previous career was as a City trader. Presumably he’s a changed man as  he’s recently collaborated with Neil Gower on what looks like a gorgeously illustrated book about nature, due to be published soon, called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Which takes me to Kathleen Jamie one of my favourite nature writers. In Findings she tracks the elusive corncrake on the island of Coll, contemplates salmon jumping on a Highland river and experiences the joy of a rare and strange sighting of a crane flying in the Scottish sky. Her writing is both beautiful and down to earth. Hard to resist a writer who starts her chapter: ‘I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned into one of those jobs you wish you’d never started’. It was already dead, by the way.

Jamie is an acclaimed poet as was the late Helen Dunmore one of my favourite authors and much mourned. Her last novel, Birdcage Walk, is the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge. Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. Much of the action in Birdcage Walk takes place in 1792, the French Revolution a worrying spectre across the channel, which takes me to my next book.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Dunmore set her novel in the year that Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal work A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. The book is a powerful critique both of women’s education and the assumptions surrounding marriage and family life, and was very much a product of Wollstonecraft’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution, tempered by her disappointment at the failure to take up the cause of women’s rights. It’s at once optimistic, passionate and angry.

So ends my second Six Degrees of Separation which has taken me from the mysterious disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls to a passionate argument for women’s rights. I think I’m hooked on this now. If you like the idea, you can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or perhaps even join in.