This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Month: March, 2012

Doctors & Nurses by Lucy Ellmann

In a tweet: Obese nurse who likes to CAPITALISE things tries to marry doctor, but discovers wife. Gets arrested for murder but avenges doctor instead.

WARNING: this is a FANTASTIC book, but it features lots of random CAPITALISATION, especially of SHOCKING words, so it is not a novel for the EASILY OFFENDED.

Now, whilst I could intersperse this entire review with CAPITAL LETTERS, I shan’t. It may work in Doctors & Nurses, but it would just be ANNOYING here.

Ok: let’s begin. For that’s certainly what Ellmann does in Doctors & Nurses, serving us a graphic prologue describing the Big Bang, which er, in her book, was a bang of the sexual variety:

‘It was deep, it was ROUGH, this mating…Lava spat far and wide as the ramming went on…the NOISE he made as he wedged himself into her…All the friction and fiction of lovemaking’

Fast forward to chapter one, where we meet Jen, an obese cake addict who is about to go for an interview in an isolated doctor’s surgery. She gets the job, and it transpires that her boss is none other than Roger Lewis, with whom she once had carnal relations on an aeroplane. They fall in love, or lust, at least, and marry: or almost do, until they are thwarted at the altar by Francine, the surgery receptionist who also happens to be Roger’s wife and mother to their two children, Edward and Adele. I hope I don’t have to tell you which classic inspired that storyline.

What I loved most, in terms of style, about Doctors & Nurses was both Ellmann’s logophilia – she clearly adores the sound as well as the meaning of words – and the Verfremdungseffekt. Even from the very beginning, we are urged not to willingly suspend our disbelief:

‘A RURAL BACKWATER. Can’t you see how FRIGHTENING that sounds? Sounds like a place in which you might quietly DROWN.’

Conversely, Ellmann’s use of stream of consciousness when she introduces Jen encourages us to identify with her and thus forget this is fiction. Her assumption that we know other characters also reinforces the idea that we are part of the story:

‘Hot. Need a HAIRCUT. Need to put my hair up. Boxes. Need boxes. Hot. Pink. Sweaty. Sore foot. Hair. Job interview. VOMIT: pink-noodle vomit on the street! Who’d eat that? Dog maybe. Pink POODLE perhaps. Better than Urma Thurb’s food though…Urma Thurb used to be NICE…Now she’s too busy.’

Ellmann’s ‘leading lady’, Jen, loves cake, sex and handbags; she hates couples, teenagers and children. In fact, she ‘hates EVERYONE’. She is a bizarre mixture: both a parody of today’s oxymoronic woman, quoting Nietzsche while Keeping Calm and Eating a Cupcake, and a social outcast in the style of Frankenstein:

‘Nobody can quite BELIEVE anyone DARES look like Jen. That meandering flesh, the flesh of AGES, flesh of LEGEND, a SAHARA DESERT of flesh…’

Essentially, the entire novel is a rant: a rant about the oppression of women; a rant about body fascism; a rant about male figures of authority. Ellmann even finds time to rant about modes of transport:

‘AEROPLANES HAVE RUINED THE WORLD. They are the source of all human misery…BECAUSE of them,you are expected to attend every goddamn wedding, funeral, baby shower, circumcision and retirement do on the PLANET…’

But because all this ranting is conducted in such a madly humorous way, Doctors & Nurses is entertaining rather than a diatribe. Although the rant which lists the many and varied conditions which the body can suffer may be one you choose to skip (I did when I first read the novel).

A word of warning: if the C word bothers you, then don’t bother reading this. Having said that, it is so overused in the novel that it loses its ability to shock. Moreover, it would be a shame to miss out on such an original piece of work, purely because it includes a word which offends you. Because Ellmann’s book has it all: sex, death, violence and handbags. What else is there?

How would I sum up Doctors & Nurses? Easy: Jane Eyre meets Wetlands. Ellmann even ‘pays homage’ to Brontë’s masterpiece after the doomed wedding service:

‘So now begins the lavish period of EXILE, in which Jane Eyre wanders starving across the MOORS…and considers marrying the sexless SINJUN and converting the INJUNS. All that stuff after the aborted wedding is a FIASCO – and it takes up a third of the book! It’s the biggest black hole in English literature!’

Buy it NOW: and never look at a HANDBAG the same way again (sorry, I couldn’t resist including some CAPITALISATION).

The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman

Firstly: I am a graphic novel virgin. Secondly: this is a brilliant introduction to graphic novels for graphic novel virgins everywhere. Fact.

Karrie Fransman tells the tale of Barbara, a busty single woman selling beauty products who has just moved into the eponymous house on the brilliantly Dickensian Rottin Road. It soon transpires that the flat is neither the ‘cosy’ nor ‘charming hideaway which the elusive Godfrey’s Estate Agents promised. Moreover, there are leaks, lusty prank phone callers and loud nocturnal lovers. It is enough to make anyone go insane.

Aside from Barbara, there are two other rather isolated female characters in The House That Groaned: Janet, who leads The Do or Diet Group in the building, and Demi Durbach, who has the unfortunate ability to blend into her own furniture. Like Barbara, Janet is also troubled by voices at night, although hers come in the form of prank phone calls, inviting her to join the Midnight Feast Front. She is more loathe to do this than most might be, having lost six stone (as well as her gay husband shortly afterwards).

It’s a cliché perhaps, but the house itself is a character, and certainly a more interesting one than the men. My friend, who has himself illustrated graphic novels, suggested that the leaking corner of Mrs Durbach’s ceiling resembles the female sexual organs. This isn’t something I’d thought of myself, but is certainly an interesting theory. For given that the women of the house are either abandoned (Janet’s husband left her), ignored (no one helps Barbara move in) or blend literally into the furniture (Mrs Durbach), it makes feminist sense for the house to be female, to contain lots of different personalities, appetites, and voices.

Brian is certainly the most fascinating male character. Since a childhood stay in hospital, he has been fixated on women with facial disfigurements or obesity issues, so The House That Groaned, with its leaks, creaks and secrets, is the perfect place for him to experience his fantasies.

In terms of style, I particularly enjoyed the different fonts Fransman uses to illustrate her characters’ actions or phone calls:

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At first, I didn’t like the fact that Fransman uses only blue, black and white to illustrate The House That Groaned, but on a second reading, I realised that the muted tones were perfect for this deliciously mad tale.

I shan’t tell you the ending, of course, but as with all the best stories, it’s not at all what you might expect.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

This is probably a book which most of you will read after watching the film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. This is no bad thing: it is a great film which is very true to the novel, and Fiennes and Winslet are as brilliant as always. But if you’ve not watched the film, then please do read the book first. Michael Berg is fifteen years old. One day, walking home from school, he is violently sick, and an older woman takes him into her apartment to clean him up. Whilst having a bath, Michael notices Hanna watching him washing; embarassed, he dresses hurriedly and flees.

But Michael cannot forget the woman who cleared up his vomit (how vomantic), so he takes her some flowers to thank her. After he returns the favour by filling up her coal scuttle, he bathes again and once again catches Hanna watching him. This time, he is not embarassed. This time, they have passionate sex and it is implied that he loses his virginity to her.

A relationship begins; a routine of bathing, sex and reading ensues. Hanna asks Michael what he’s reading at school and then asks him to read to her. Teacher and pupil roles are reversed regularly: Michael teaches Hanna about literature, Hanna teaches Michael about sex.

Time passes. Hanna is angry with Michael when he joins the tram on which she is working and acts immaturely; their relationship is a secret from his family and friends and ultimately cannot compete with the latter. One day, Michael knocks on Hanna’s door and she has gone – for good.

Schlink skips a few years and we meet Michael again at university. Like his author, he is reading law. It is the late Sixties, the Vergangenheitsbewältigung-era in Germany. He observes a war criminal trial and is stunned to discover that one of the defendants is none other than Hanna.

As the trial progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the other defendents, who were low ranking concentration camp workers, are determined to walk free and see Hanna take the entire responsibility for the murder in the church during an imfamous death march. When Michael realises that Hanna is prepared to face a life in prison rather than reveal her secret, a secret which would absolve her of a great deal of responsibility, he also finally realises what that secret is: Hanna is illiterate.

I shan’t reveal the rest of the plot: it is pretty obvious to you, I’m sure, that Hannah goes to prison. But that’s not the end of the story. What is the end? And who is the eponymous Reader?

Schlink’s novel broke my heart and angered me all in one go. History has rightly taught us to view the Holocaust purely from the Jewish perspective, and for Schlink to suggest we sympathise with a Nazi war criminal is extremely controversial. But the problem is, he is not only writing about the German problem of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, he is also writing a love story. For I believe that Michael never stops loving Hanna. She is punished for her crime, and he is punished for his.

The Two Week Wait by Sarah Rayner

Two women. One gay and single, one straight and married. So far, so different. But they both have one major thing in common: they both want a baby.

I finished reading The Two Week Wait yesterday in Starbucks Piccadilly and I had to try desperately hard not to sob into my over-sugared venti latte. Unlike my coffee, this is not a froth-filled novel. Rayner is not afraid to tackle controversial topics; in One Moment, One Moment, it was bereavement and sexuality, in The Two Week Wait, it is infertility.

Lou is in her thirties and has been told to have a child before it is too late. Her girlfriend Sofia, however, is not altogether keen on the idea. Should she forget about having a child or go it alone?

In another town in England, cancer sufferer Cath has just been given the all-clear. In her early forties, it would be hard enough to conceive naturally, never mind the fact that her ovaries had to be removed.

Could Cath and Lou help each other? Will they both be able to conceive? And if not, can they imagine a future without children?

What I really loved about this novel was that Rayner has really done her research into IVF and other similar treatments. For example, I had no idea that such a scheme as egg sharing existed, nor did I know about ICSI ( intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection).

I also enjoyed meeting One Moment, One Morning’s characters once again. It was reassuring to see Anna move on from Steve, Karen rebuild her life after losing Simon, and Irene, Lou’s mum, welcome Lou’s pregnancy. What’s also great is that while One Moment, One Morning is a fantastic read, The Two Week Wait is a stand alone novel, which you can read without any prior knowledge of these characters.

So trot along to your nearest Waterstones and pick up a copy of The Two Week Wait. I guarantee that, like me, it will have you sobbing into your caffeinated drink of choice.